Our middle son Derek was born severely disabled in 1987. Seventeen years ago, he died on Mother’s Day in 2007, right before what would have been his 20th birthday. With the recent Mother’s Day, I paused to reflect on the lessons I gained from Derek’s short and hard life. Probably still the best summary of those reflections are the comments I delivered at his service back in 2007, so I’m sharing them here.
Goodbye to Derek
There will be a lot of tears flowing, but please know that there is underlying joy. I have printed my notes on waterproof paper, so you don’t have to worry about that. Derek had a good little life. While he certainly endured aches and pains in his twisted body, he also experienced joy. When Derek got happy, really happy, he would start a kind of screaming joyous laugh, and would laugh so hard he would literally choke himself, then recover, and start again! I would just look at that, and wonder what could cause a boy with no discernable brain activity to experience a joy more intense than anything I will never know on this side of eternity. We used to speculate that angels were tickling him, or whispering jokes in his ears.
I miss Derek, actually more than I realized I would, but I know he is whole now. Derek is free of the physical infirmities that defined his earthly existence. As some of you know, I love backpacking more than just about anything; and my enthusiasm is not shared by anyone else in the family. We always figured that Derek would have been the one who loved the outdoors. So now I have a son in heaven, scouting out the best backpacking trips in the heavenly ranges of light.
In between the weeping this last week, I’ve had some time to reflect on how Derek’s life mattered; what he taught me, how he affected our family, how he touched others. You might wonder how a small boy, blind and unable to communicate or care for himself in any way, could affect others. I wish you could meet some of the staff at Fairview Developmental Center, where Derek spent the last 17 years of his life. They loved Derek so much, and doted on him. Derek’s laughter floating through the halls brought them so much joy. Without the incredible care he received at Fairview, he never would have lived as long as he did, and been in such great condition. We would visit at all hours. Nights, weekends, it didn’t matter; Derek was always clean, neatly dressed and well-groomed.
As surely as he touched the lives of others, Derek had a profound effect on his immediate family. We are all, in some respects, who we are today because of Derek. Our other sons Brian and Grant have a sensitivity to disabled people and a comfort around them they would not otherwise have. They made some sacrifices growing up, and they never complained. I am so proud of the strong young men they have become. Francie has basically created her own ministry, touching many other parents of disabled kids that she seems to meet wherever she goes. Francie’s brother Patrick connected with Derek so profoundly that he changed his entire career, went back to school, and became a Special Education teacher. And Derek, or the honor and privilege of being Derek’s father, taught me many things.
Derek had problems that I couldn’t fix, no matter how smart an engineer I was. This forced me to my knees, to cry out to God, to turn over control of my life to His son Jesus, and so cross over from death into life. I owe Derek my eternity, and am grateful for the hope of seeing him again.
I learned about family you can count on when the chips are down, who stand with you in hard times. These are just a few examples of many instances. My Mom, Claire, who when she learned of Derek’s birth, must have basically hung up the phone and walked out her door in Massachusetts to fly out here, because she was here before the day was over. My father-in-law Lou, who when we needed a form signed to get Derek into Fairview, and he was told that the person needing to sign it would ‘get back to him’, informed the staff that he would be waiting in their front office, and he would not be leaving until he had the signed form in his hand. My brother Jeff and sister Kathrin, who are here today, having walked away from incredibly hectic weeks on the East Coast to come offer support. My brother-in-law Patrick and his family…as they were tucking their children into bed in Wisconsin this last Sunday, they told them what was happening with Derek. One of Derek’s cousins got a serious look on his face, and said that if there was a funeral, then they needed to go, because Derek was family. So they flew the entire family out. And the many other relatives, who made the treks to Fairview to visit Derek over the years, and included Derek in their lives by sending birthday and Christmas presents. I am definitely grateful for family.
Beyond family, through Derek I learned the power of friends. I can’t begin to identify all the neighbors, church friends, work friends, and friends that Francie just seems to attract wherever she goes. Some friends had handicapped kids of their own, and can share in those experiences. Many did not, and while they couldn’t relate to that aspect of our journey, it didn’t stop them from becoming a part of our lives. All of these friends, as you did today, came alongside us, walked with us, cried with us, laughed with us, and prayed with us. I am so very grateful for our friends.
But the biggest lesson Derek taught me was about my wife Francie. I always knew I married “up”, I think that’s probably true of most guys. But watching Francie care for Derek showed me how far “UP” I had married. Derek arrived on the scene needing constant and complete care for all his needs. He required 4 bottles a day to gain strength, and it took two hours to feed him each bottle. If he threw everything up on the last drop, as he often did, he had to be fed a fresh bottle. Derek had to be transported to an endless round of visits to doctors and specialists, and had five surgeries in his first year. At the same time, Francie cared for a harried husband, an active toddler, and, with the arrival of Grant, basically a second newborn. I cannot tell you how humbling it is, after your own strength is long gone, to watch a woman give literally the last drop of her strength, caring for your child; a child who would never send her cards, never say thank you, never tell her he loved her, and I’m talking about BEFORE he became a teenager. Even after Derek was placed at Fairview, Francie visited all the time, much more than the rest of us. She decorated his rooms, took him special tapes, hand-made quilts, new clothes. She built relationships with his caregivers, other Fairview clients and their parents. Francie lavished her love on Derek for his entire life, and to whatever extent he could know anything, Derek knew he was loved. I am so humbled and so honored to have been married to this woman these 25 years. I hope, by the grace of God, for many more years at her side.
Thank you all for sharing this day, our sorrow and our joy, and walking alongside us. It means more than you can know.