Photo by Anna Carroll
I will begin at the end, which for me was the beginning of an unexpected walk of faith.
Late in the evening on Oct. 26, 1989, there was a knock at the door. It was my parents who lived about 45 minutes away. They had come to tell me that my sweet son, Ronald Lawrence Cole III, had been killed by a drunk driver, while riding his 10-speed bike.
My world turned upside down that night, and it has been difficult ever since. I was sent down a path no parent expects to take, a lonely road of losing a child. My parents consoled me as I cried, and my two stepsons woke up to my cries, “No, no, no.” It was a very sad night.
I put on the Florida Gators T-shirt Ronnie had given me for Christmas, and as I fell into a slumber in the wee hours of the morning, I felt a little closer to him. The next morning, I awoke to the realization that I needed to tell my sweet 12-year-old daughter, Natasha, that her dear brother had been killed. I was so very afraid, God was going to have to give me the words, and I dreaded telling her. As the words came forth like an ugly monster, I could hear her heart crack as her tears fell all over me. She and I clung to one another as if we would surely die ourselves. How would we ever survive this day?
There is nothing like Christian parents and a family of Christian friends. My parents and best friend were over first thing the next morning. We talked about Ronnie, his memories flooded the room, I think we may have even laughed some. Those first days are so full of denial that I know my memories are altered. I remember it was like being in a daze; I had to be told each step to take. I still remember my dad saying, “We need to go to the funeral home,” and, I realized, “Oh yeah, I have to go pick out a casket don’t I.” We continued on the mission that no parent wants to take, I screamed in my head over and over, “Why me God, why, why, why?” It was a question I would ask God for months. I picked out a casket, when I should have been helping Ronnie pick out a class ring. He was only six weeks into his senior year. I had spent a small fortune on braces as a single mom. All those growing-up years, where were the fruits to enjoy. Instead of planning his senior prom, I was planning his funeral. It was so unfair. I remember telling God, “You have no idea how I feel.” I had never felt so alone in my whole life, and yet I was surrounded by loving family and friends.
In the months to come I questioned God over and over and over, why didn’t He intervene? It seemed so wrong. It was so wrong. I struggled with the meaning of my life. Being a secretary was no longer fulfilling, life had to be more than that for me. I went back to college to become a nurse, a dream I’d had for years, one I had shared with Ronnie. As we sat on the front porch during his visit that summer, I told him I wanted to be a nurse. He asked me what kind of nurse? I said a pediatric nurse, but that I didn’t think I could handle the death of a child. Imprinted in my brain like a brand is Ronnie’s response. As he turned and held my hands and looked into my eyes with those beautiful baby blues of his, they sparkled, “Mom, you are so strong in the Lord, you could handle that.” Many, many times those words rang in my ears, he believed in me, he believed I could handle it, he believed in my faith. Yes, “faith,” what a struggle that was these days. What did I believe? At times I believed that God didn’t really care about the hairs on my head. If He did, He would have intervened, isn’t that what God does for Christians, His special people. I struggled so with free will, consequences, faith and grace. One minute I would pray and talk to God, the next I would cry and blame Him. Yes, after the shock and denial wear off, there is such anger and sadness. You feel all alone as you walk through the malls at Christmastime. It seems everyone is laughing, as you feel your shattered world will never be the same. Will there ever be true joy again? Does joy really come in the morning? I could not see God’s hand in my everyday life, but I look back now and see that He truly carried me through the nightmare of grief.
I recall many rough moments. I cried at a friend’s daughter’s wedding, knowing I would never see my son standing at the end of the aisle, waiting for his bride. What would she have been like? What would he have become? How many grandchildren did satan rob from me? Yes, I had started realizing it was satan who had come to steal, kill and destroy. In my grief I did not always go to the Word for comfort, I would sometimes play right into satan’s hand and not even go to church if I felt down. At other times I used the Bible for comfort. I found I could only listen to Christian radio songs. The rock music station could not give me the rock that my Jesus was. I bought Russ Taff’s song, “I Still Believe,” and I would play it and play it and play it. It was my spiritual warfare song, because it was clear satan had stolen my son, and now he was after my heart. At times I wondered how “saved” was Ronnie? He had gone on a youth trip that summer with the church and had recommitted his life to Jesus, so satan said to me often, ‘You don’t know if he stayed saved do you?’ It was a horrible recurring, haunting thought, right out of the pit of hell. I so needed peace. Where was my Prince of Peace? Anger, oh how angry I was at God, at life, at the drunk driver who crashed into my baby boy. Yes, life is not fair! I went to a full-gospel meeting about five months after Ronnie’s death. Spring was in the air, birds were singing, and I felt like the world was coming back to life, but not my Ronnie.
The speaker that night talked about anger and forgiveness. I had forgiven. I had said so in my heart, “God, forgive this enemy of mine who killed my Ronnie.” Yet, when the alter call came, my feet took me up front, to a man I will never forget. He was of American Indian background. He knew much about spiritual warfare, and he (about my dad’s age) and his son (about my age) asked me what my prayer was. I told him my son had been killed by a drunk driver, and I wasn’t sure I had forgiven him, or even could. He then asked me if I prayed for him, I said “yes,” every night. He asked if I prayed out loud and reminded me whatsoever the mouth speaks is made known in my heart. He asked me to repeat after him, which I obediently did. “By the grace of God, I forgive (what’s his name, honey?)” I bolted, threw my hands down, and this angry voice I did not recognize said, “I can’t do this!” He got in my face and said “That’s right, you can’t; only Jesus in you can!”
Then he asked me if God had forgiven me of anything. Wow, did I see my life and former sins flash before my eyes. I was broken. My God and His grace had forgiven me of so much. He told me if I wanted God’s continued forgiveness I, too, must forgive him, in Jesus’ name. He could see I was ready, so again, he said, repeat after me, honey:
“By the grace of God.”
I said, “By the grace of God.”
He said, “I forgive.”
I said, “I forgive.”
He said, “What’s his name?”
I said, “SCA.”
At that moment I bawled like a baby, I felt 50 pounds lighter as I cried and cried and cried. It was so freeing. He reminded me the thief would come time and time again to steal my joy. He said, I needed to pray out loud daily for SCA. I do, and I still do, and I always will, till the day I die.
The following Sunday was amazing. I was at church and the pastor told us to look up a scripture. I misunderstood him and wound up on a page with a subtitle standing out to me like a lighthouse beacon: “Forgiveness for the sinner” (2 Corinthians 2:5). Yes, God was calling me to do more than I could have imagined. I have learned this is His trademark. He’s the “More than I Can Imagine God.”
On the six-month anniversary of Ronnie’s death, the first sad milestone, I sat down and wrote a letter to SCA. God put it on my heart from that scripture, and I was afraid not to be obedient. My heels were dug in the ground, and God was pulling me forward to a new level. I was quite resistant. I wrote the letter and shared my experience with him. I was ordered by God to also mail a Bible to him. “Wow, God, what’s next?” So, in my half obedience, I bought a paperback student study Bible. I mailed it to the prison, and several days later it came back to me, water damaged. It looked like it had been dropped into a puddle of water and then dried. It looked awful.
I called the prison to find out why it came back to me. They explained a security procedure that required much red tape: If the name ends in these letters of the alphabet, you have to do this, and on and on. I finally said in a very exasperated, tearful voice, “Lady, please, I just want to mail a Bible to the drunk driver who killed my son.” You could have heard a pin drop, to put it mildly. She paused for some time to no doubt recuperate from the shock of my statement. Then she spoke to me in a totally different tone of voice, one of compassion. She told me I could mail it to him through the prison chaplain’s office. So, once again, I set out on a mission to a Christian bookstore for a new Bible, a study Bible for the man who killed my son.
As I arrived at the store I was shown the leather-bound Bibles that were on sale, Wow, talk about pretty and the price was not much more than the paperback. In my heart, I did not want to buy a pretty Bible for him, yet my betraying legs walked me to the checkout counter. The sales clerk asked me if it was a “gift.” My mind did not like that word at all. This man did not deserve a gift, and certainly not my Holy God’s Word, “Oh no, not at all I thought.” Yet, my betraying mouth said, “Yes mam, it is a gift.” She then explained that it is store policy to engrave the receiver’s name on the Bible at no additional cost, and it would only take about 10 minutes, would I like that?
My mind, screamed “No, no, no — not “his” name on my precious Lord’s Word. Once again, my mouth betrayed me, as the words flowed from my lips, “Yes mam, that would be very nice.” I was a bit angry with God, wasn’t he pushing this obedience thing a bit too far? My flesh and my spirit were having one really big battle. “God,” I prayed, “please help me have the spirit of love and grace that you have for me.” I went home, wrapped the Bible, and quickly shipped it to the prison chaplain. Engraved in beautiful gold letters read “SCA.” It seemed so very odd, seeing his name on the Bible and my son’s on a tombstone. Yes, it was very odd indeed.
About three days later as we were eating breakfast, we received a phone call. My husband, Bill, answered the phone and anxiously shared, “It’s the prison in Florida. It’s the pastor you mailed the Bible to SCA through.” As we spoke, the chaplain said words so amazing, I will never forget. He informed me that he had received the Bible with the letter, explaining to give it to SCA. He had never met SCA before, as he did not attend prison church services, so he called him into the office. He told me SCA opened the Bible and read: “To: SCA, From: Ruth Whittinghill; In memory of Ronald Lawrence Cole III. He broke down into sobbing, heaving tears for a very, very long time. Finally, when he could utter some words through his continued sobbing, he said, “No one, and I do mean no one has ever given me a Bible as a gift in my life, and of all people — “her.”
The chaplain said he had seen a lot of people in his lifetime talk the talk, but “Lady you are truly walking the walk.” I told him it was only Jesus in me, not me. I said that I was struggling with the obedience to do what God had put on my heart. It was only through the grace of God that I could do this.
The chaplain assured me that it was still a choice of obedience and that I was to be commended for following through with God’s will. It felt good to have done the right thing. It felt good to know, as the pastor had put it, “Today you made a difference in this young man’s life, I don’t know about his tomorrows, but today, you have made a difference.” SCA responded with a letter that was full of surprises, I learned he’d had a very rough life. He lost his biological mom to acute alcoholism when he was only three years old. He lost his stepmom to cancer when he was 23. His father was in a nursing home, unaware he had a son in jail. He said he couldn’t write to him and break his heart. He had a sister that he had cared for who had been in an alcohol-related wreck, leaving her a paraplegic, only in her case, she had been the drunk driver. She was now in a nursing home. He had an LPN degree and had been working in a nursing home himself before the accident.
His letter said these were only the facts and by no means were they any justification for what he had done. SCA’s letter started out with these words, “I never expected to hear from anyone while I was in here, especially you. I can’t even begin to understand why you have written to me, nor why you sent me the Bible.” It dawned on me that he felt very undeserving of this act of grace Jesus had done through me. I continued to write throughout his jail term, sharing Jesus with him. I prayed for guidance, for the right scriptures. You see, he had shared that he had come to realize that if I, the mother of the young man he had killed, could forgive him, he somehow knew that God could forgive him, too. It gave him back his faith.
We are all sinners saved by grace. None of us deserves what God gives us. I also had to believe that my son, so dear to my heart, had made a difference in this man’s life. It would be such a waste if Ronnie’s death had made no difference. Then satan would have won. Time and time again, God has given me a peace that surpasses all my understanding. How could I not pass that love on? Yes, that is the way Ronnie would have wanted it. God has rewarded my obedience tenfold. In countless ways, His love is forever, as is His sweet grace.
My first Mother’s Day was one I deeply dreaded. How would I make it through such a special day without my sweet little boy? He was always so good to me on Mother’s Day, and I knew the void would feel like a deep vacuum. I went with the women at church to a conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I felt extra lonely, but I was trying to act happy. I didn’t want to bring down anyone’s special time. I walked along the shops ahead of the others, ducking into a shop that called my name. Oh, Mickey Mouse, he was everywhere, my son’s childhood hero, I felt so sad, I missed him so very much, and the memories were everywhere, pervading my soul. I walked out with tears filling my eyes, praying to God to get me through this weekend and back home where I could cry and be held by those who somewhat knew my pain. I looked up and the next shop was “God’s Corner.” “Oh yes, that is where I needed to be, in God’s Corner.
As I entered this quaint little shop, I was awestruck by the most amazing picture, in sundry sizes all over the wall, this stunning picture of Jesus and my Ronnie. It was not red hair, not blonde, not curly, but my baby’s brown longish straight hair. It was his physique. Ronnie was 6 feet tall, slim, same uncanny profile, same hair color and hairstyle. It was God holding my Ronnie, as if he had waited a lifetime to hold him. “That’s my child with my Father!” What a gift from God! “Wow,” I thought. “It’s a miracle.” My son is alive and well in the arms of Jesus and Jesus loves me soooooo much. How many people can say they have a personal picture of their child and Jesus? He truly loves me, more than I can imagine. This picture was my defense when satan slapped me in the face each day, taunting me, “Remember, your son’s dead. Remember your son’s dead.”
Yes, God truly cares about the hairs on my head, no doubt about it. Do I believe I was rewarded for my obedience? Yes, I do indeed! So, if you have anyone you are holding anger against, I can tell you, you will be richly rewarded to follow your Father’s example, to forgive and to love your enemies, the reward is abounding joy, peace beyond measure, and an afterlife that is out of this world.
So, pray for His strength to do the right thing. I promise you will be so glad you did. Thank you for allowing me to share God’s grace and love, and my Ronnie, with you.
This is the special photo that looks just like “My Ronnie” with Jesus. Ronnie was 6 feet tall, slim, same uncanny profile, same hair color and hairstyle. That’s my child with my Father! What a gift from God. What peace this picture has given me. God truly knows the number of hairs on our head. Just look at my Ronnie!