18 Dec LOVE CAME DOWN AND SET ME FREE
Hi friends. Many of you may have already tuned in to my interview with Jamie Ivey (episode #168 on The Happy Hour podcast). If you haven’t listened, feel free to do so for further background on my story and the transformational journey God has taken me on.
This summer, I set out on a journey to bring redemption from destruction.
Each June, I go through a tub of old newspaper articles. This bin is deemed my “Crash Box” and contains every article written about the horrific drunk driving accident that took the lives of my mother, my two sisters, my mother’s boyfriend, and one man in another vehicle. My mother and Todd, her boyfriend, were drunk. They were at fault. I don’t know if I’ve ever fully read the articles; I’ve infrequently skimmed them, then shoved the pile back into the box, too overwhelmed to really absorb the words. I’ve done this over and over for the past 18 years. Open, skim, shove, pack away again. It’s almost as though opening that box is my pandora – I don’t want to allow the onslaught of emotions to hit me. But this time I was having a particularly difficult week and came across the box in the basement. I pulled it down from the storage shelf, pried off the lid, and pulled out the topmost article. It was the first time I fully absorbed the names…Lauren, Amanda, Samantha, Stephan, Josh, Trooper Van Otterloo…I read each name, allowing my mom’s face to appear, then Amanda’s, then Sammy’s. When I got to the other names, I realized I couldn’t picture who they were. I wanted to. For the very first time in nearly two decades, I was overcome with a need for more. I needed to feel the full weight of lives lost at my mother’s hand.
When the accident happened my family was so broken, so hurt, suffering in their grief. “A man in the other vehicle was killed…” they said, “a newlywed, young, coming home from a fishing trip.” At the time, I was processing the onslaught of emotions – numb to everything, the news just didn’t register. I couldn’t allow any more pain to fill my soul. There wasn’t room. “Another man drove alongside their car, trying to get them to turn around, waving at them and flashing his lights…” Again, I couldn’t go there, couldn’t think. Everything and everyone was dead to me. In the years following, I gathered my brokenness, packaged it up, and built a solid wall around myself. I stopped crying. I hid behind the wall. I pretended I was fine, turning my eyes forward, rather than inward. I grew numb. I was suffocating, slowly, in a coffin of my own making.
But this time, I absorbed the article’s contents. I saw their names and remembered the story, lingering on each detail. The accident was 18 years ago and now I was finally able to consider these families, their stories intertwined with my own. That horrific day was a part of their story as well. My life was blurred with theirs.
A realization hit me. The Internet. Facebook. I can find them. Would they want to know me, know my story? Do I want to know theirs? Yes. YES.
It took me an hour to find them. There were two I prayed would respond. Carla, the widow of the man who died in the other vehicle and Josh, the faithful Good Samaritan who tried to get my mom and her boyfriend to turn around. Finding Josh proved more difficult than Carla, but I was certain I found his wife. I messaged both:
“You don’t know me, but my name is Abbie Kampman…”
I explained who I was, that I was deeply sorry for the pain my family had caused, and hoped to hear back from them. Finishing, I paused, hesitating for a split second. Before I could rethink the decision, I hit send. Gone. Off to the interwebs. Now the waiting. I truly didn’t expect to hear back. I assumed each message would rest in their spam folders, forgotten. But three days later, a message popped up in my Facebook inbox from Stephan’s widow:
“Wow. I’m blown away. Yes, I am Carla. You found the right person. I’m so glad you decided to message me. Just wow. So many emotions, but mostly admiration for you. I am so sorry too. If you ever want to hear my story I would happily share it. If you’d like to share yours, I’d love to hear about your sisters too. Thank you, Abbie. You are now always in my prayers.”
My breath caught in my throat. Did this really just happen? She not only responded, but she was kind, generous, and forgiving! My body shook, overwhelmed at the magnitude of what just happened.
From that moment, the summer snowballed into a series of connections. I called Carla and we talked for over an hour. I got in touch with Josh, the man who drove alongside my mom’s car. I connected with Steve, the state trooper who investigated the accident. Each of these individuals provided comfort, peace, care, and generosity. God began to dress wounds that had never fully healed. He began to lift the weight from my shoulders. He began to free the chains I didn’t realize were holding me back for so many years. I began to reach for anything and everything I could find that may provide closure. In a conversation with Steve, he mentioned he could get me a copy of the accident report and the photos of the bodies. I hesitated, but said yes. I wanted no stone unturned.
I sent a request for the full accident report per Steve’s instructions. I asked for the photos. Many families of fatalities and homicides don’t want to see them, but I did. I never got to see Mom before she was cremated. If I couldn’t see her final brokenness, I couldn’t think of her as anything but fabricated, untouched and unharmed by her choices. I needed to see the devastation that came from her hand. Her body, my sisters’ bodies, Todd’s, Steve’s, the mangled cars, the debris – the wreckage that became her life. I needed to see how far I’d come since God has picked up the pieces. Mom left this earth with a broken body and in turn, left me with a broken soul.
After dropping the request in the mail, I sucked in a breath. It’s coming. Every detail I’ve ever avoided is coming. Lord, be near. A few weeks later, the file arrived.
I’d been waiting on pins and needles and now, it was in my hands. The typical 9×11 yellow manilla envelope – full of papers and photos that would alter how I’d understood the accident for the past 18 years. The truth. The truth was in my hands. I had to put it down for a bit, the contents too violent to handle. It was all too much. I wandered around the house, picking up toys, putting away books, reading emails without actually taking in the information, pouring tea, setting out ingredients to make brownies for the boys’ VBS that night, changing the laundry from the washer to the dryer. Mundane tasks to put off the inevitable.
Should I open it? I kept walking toward the envelope, then away. Finally, I picked it up, wanting to get it over with.
I sat down. Undid the metal clasp. Pulled out the papers. Department of Public Safety. Iowa State Patrol. File number 99-133. Hands trembling, I noticed a sticky note attached to the topmost paper. “The photos are coming. They are negatives and need to be processed at a separate facility. I will get them to you as soon as possible.” I exhaled. Well at least I can prepare myself further for those, I thought, slightly disappointed, but knowing God had a reason for the delay; I needed to digest in small bits. Too much. It was all too much.
I flipped the bound file to the first page and read through each word. Page after page of technical details, what time the accident occurred, at which mile marker, how fast the cars were going, where they hit, at what angle they rested, how much alcohol was in Todd’s blood, how many fatalities, how many injured – basic details. One thing I noticed was that the reports seemingly focused on the drivers and the injured. My mother and sisters were oddly left out of the technical details, their only representation was in the final death count. Five. Five deaths. They could have been anyone – any number of people. Just a number. Their injuries, their ages, their lives, their stories? Nothing. The only mention of them came at the end of the report, in the witness accounts. There were six statements, two from the surviving injured men in the other vehicle, and four from innocent bystanders who happened to see the accident and stopped to help. Josh’s statement was in there, but the one that caught my eye was a woman named Lynne. Lynne said, “We were heading home, on Highway 218. I was watching the road ahead and saw dust flying. I told Wayne to stop. He pulled over right away and our headlights shone on a child’s body. We immediately got out to help and ended up pulling out another child, a little girl, from the wrecked car before it started to burn.”
It’s her. It’s him.
The couple who pulled Amanda from the car. They saw Sammy’s body on the road. They were there, they touched their lifeless little arms, felt their hair, probably had the girls’ blood on their hands and clothes. They were there.
I dropped the report. Too much. It was too much. Tears running down my face, I took in the scene – allowed myself to go there, as I had been doing so often lately. I pictured Lynne, driving along staring at the road, dusk just settling and the sun nearly gone on the horizon. The Iowa countryside flying by. Their car, cresting the hill at mile marker 80 on Highway 218, the commotion ahead, the dust overwhelming the road. Lynne, urging Wayne to pull over, quickly. Wayne steering their car onto the left shoulder, car screeching to a halt, headlights still on. Following the beams of light, a girl, laying in the road. Bleach blonde hair, tanned skin covered in dust and blood, lifeless. Lynne jumping out, Wayne right behind her. Running to Sammy, feeling her pulse. Nothing. Running to the car, glass and mangled steel littering the road, airbag dust filling their lungs, the smell of blood, exhaust, gasoline, alcohol permeating the air. Another girl in the back seat of the car, darker blonde, slightly older, also lifeless. Prying the door open, pulling the thin body out before the flames began to overtake the front hood. Frantically trying to help the two adults in the front, but unable, their bodies crushed and the car’s flames licking closer.
I stopped. Too much. It was too much.
I refocused my mind, tried to think of them as everyone else does reading a newspaper article, or watching the news, as a mere number, a death count. I couldn’t. These were my sisters, my mother, my family, my heart. A heavy conviction settled over me, realizing when I see an article about the Syrian crisis, bombings in Europe, or Tsunamis in Asia, it’s so easy to pass over the death toll. A number. Nameless faces, simply fatalities. Except they aren’t. These individuals, all of them, are someone’s child, mother, uncle, friend. These are precious lives loved by others. Someone, somewhere is weeping over each lost soul. Each broken life. Each puddle of blood. Each final breath.
What is a life? Why do we value it so deeply? How can we squash a bug, accidentally run over a squirrel, flush a fish down a toilet, and simply go on with our lives without a second thought – but a human life lost is unparalleled. We break. We mourn. We grieve with every ounce of our souls. Even a human we have never met. Ask a woman who has suffered a miscarriage of a child so desperately wanted and she will tell you. That child was hers, and it was loved. Ask a daughter whose 90 year old father died in his sleep peacefully and she will tell you. His life was powerful, influential, loved. She cannot fathom a moment without him, even though his life was full and ended well. The many losses of life in between, the spectrum of grief, the meaning of a heartbeat, a single breath, of warm skin in a tender embrace – it’s all there…something we cannot explain. We were created to love. To have deep care for each human soul. It’s innate. We were made for this.
According to Henri Nouwen, “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.” To love is to be human. Humans were created for love, to embody it, to share it, to weep over it, to die for it. God made us in His image (Genesis 1:27), and He is love (1 John 4:8). If He is love and we were made in His likeness, then we were uniquely created to love one another. Two birds cannot love one another, two fish cannot show or feel love, two spiders cannot experience love. No. We, mankind, created in His image, in His likeness, were designed to love. When any one of us dies, our loss is felt because of love. Not merely by our friends and family, but by our God, our Father, who designed each and every one of us.
Every person matters. Every life matters. Every one. We are not a mere number, a population of nameless faces; we are dearly loved by a Heavenly Father who knows the numbers of hairs on our heads because He formed every one. That precious blonde preschooler, lying in the road, lit up by the headlights of Wayne and Lynne’s car, was seen by God. The thin, tanned seven year old, pulled from the mangled vehicle, was created in His image. The inebriated woman, crushed by the swiftly burning mangled vehicle, she was dearly loved by her Maker. All of them, each unique, and not one more precious than the other – they were not a mere death count. No, these lives were valued far more than they knew. Jesus wept over their brokenness, just as much as He does and will over each and every life on this earth. We are not a number. We are precious. We are dearly loved and created to love in return.
Taking this in, I wept. For the first time in 18 years, I sobbed with grief over each of the souls that perished, feeling the full weight of love God has for each of His children. I praised Him for the redemption of new relationships with the victim’s family and witnesses. I handed my burden over and acutely felt Him carry the weight away, taking it upon Himself. I felt His love envelop me, wholly, the chains of brokenness shattered.
The walls crumbled. I was finally free.
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.”
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves