I stared down at the notepad where I had scribbled the caller’s name. It had taken me a few minutes to put it together. But I think. . . Yes, I was talking to the shooter’s dad. The name he’d given me sounded so familiar but I was also trying to pay attention to what he was saying — or trying not to say.
“I need to speak with the Sr. Pastor, if I could,” said this voice on the other end. I explained that I was his assistant. As we spoke, we were occasionally interrupted by a clicking. So at one point, he stopped the conversation and said, “That’s the press.” And that confirmed that I was indeed talking to the dad. He had been attending the large church in Omaha where I work. And this distraught parent needed prayer.
It was just the day before that phone call, that 19 year old Robert Hawkins walked into the Von Maur Department store with a rifle. He killed eight people, wounded four, then turned the gun on himself. I’ve heard it said on the news before that “the community is grieving.” But never had I felt that and witnessed it happening all around me — in my own community. We all watched as our normally quiet Omaha was all over the national news. Word began to spread about the victims and connections we all had somewhere. One of the kids at my son’s school lost his grandmother in the gift wrapping department. And the shooter’s family had been attending our church. The whole thing was horrible and sad.
Our congregation responded by writing notes to all the victims’ families and we delivered them to the funeral homes. Hundreds of notes filled nine baskets and lined up on my desk. We delivered eight of the baskets to eight funeral homes. As I arrived with a basket of written tears on the day of a particular funeral, I was always so glad that the funeral had not started. I just couldn’t bear to see the families.
The ninth basket was for the shooter’s family and filled with just as many notes from our congregation. But there was no funeral for him. No funeral home to gather and grieve. What words could possibly be said?
I dropped off the basket of notes to the shooter’s dad on my way home from work that cold December night. It was an ordinary middle class neighborhood in a suburb of Omaha. Ordinary home with an ordinary front door. The house was painted in ordinary beige, and an ordinary older truck was parked in the driveway. Ordinary trash cans parked close to the garage door. I rang the doorbell wondering what in the world I was going to say for this extraordinary situation.
A teenage girl answered the door and pulled off the barking dog. This dad, whom I had been speaking to on the phone, was average height. Average build. He had on outdated “dad” jeans and an outdated brown sweater. But he wasn’t sloppy. Teenage daughter said hello and then turned back to the kitchen to finish making “mac and cheese.” A ordinary, familiar smell. As I spoke to him, I could now see his kind face. And the hurt —right there inside his eyes. And as he talked, I saw something else. I saw bewilderment.
I uttered something genuine, but very unsure of how it was perceived or if it was enough. How could anything be enough? He was grateful for the hug. And grateful for the basket of notes. But those notes would not answer any questions he had. I knew that. He knew that. They would not soothe any aches he felt about the son he’d just lost or the countless number of lives that had just been turned upside down by his son’s actions.
I got in my car and headed for my own ordinary home – small duplex actually. Home to my own two sons who were only extraordinary in their mother’s eyes. But they, too, were victims of a broken home. I would probably be making mac and cheese.
And I cried on that drive home. I mean, I really cried. For this man. For his son. For the people he shot. For every parent out there who is bewildered by their kid’s actions. I’m not sure what I was expecting but certainly not a really nice guy, with an ordinary front door and outdated dad jeans. . .making mac and cheese.
The next day, I recounted my experience to the Sr. Pastor, who had spoken to the dad on the phone a few days before. I told him how nice the guy was, how ordinary life seemed. And I said to my boss, “I guess as a parent, you just never know.”
And he said something that would seep into my heart and stick in every corner.
“Yes,” his wisdom spoke. “There are no guarantees with kids.”
How that truth would not only haunt me but also set me free as the next few weeks and months would prove to be the most difficult in my parenting life.
Only ten days later, I was at another funeral home, in my own state of bewilderment. Asking my own questions through tears. My kids’ dad had decided to end his own life with a gun. His quick rebound marriage of a little over a year was heading for a divorce. He’d lost his job a few months earlier and it was all too much for him to face. So he ended it all leaving a trail of heartache, fatherless kids and lots of questions — a week before Christmas.
Immediately my kids were thrown deeper into a well of statistics. Everyone knows that stats aren’t good for kids from broken homes. Stats are terrible for kids of a parent who has died. And worse for kids of a suicidal parent. As those first several months unfolded after their dad’s death, I often thought about my experience with the Von Maur shooter’s ordinary dad.
How could I turn out awesome kids, when my sons’ world was less than ordinary?
How could I — by myself now — turn out two young men that would contribute positively to the world?
And was all the work I put into this project called “kids” worth it — if there were no guarantees? Why bother with effort, time, attention, boundaries, discipline, money, encouragement, homework, structure. . .love. . .if there are no guarantees?
If all that pouring out of myself and pouring into them ends up in a mall with a rifle? Pretty big questions for a sad heart that must go on.
And then these words came to me:
So, if you knew THAT — would it change anything you’re doing now?
If you could look into a crystal ball and see their future and it looked horrific, would you do today any differently?
“No,” I answered the thoughts in my head.
“It really wouldn’t change a thing.”
I love them. I’m gambling on them. I have hope. And it’s the right thing to do.
For me. For them. For God.
As de-motivating as the “no guarantee” realization was, I found a lot of freedom there too. Sure, there’s expectations, dreams for my kids, disappointment when things don’t turn out that way. And the worry! Oh my, it just never stops! But I raised them, I invested in them, I loved them. Not because I was sure they would turn out to be awesome kids. But because I made this agreement on the front end. Like gold panning, I kept moving the stuff around and around, hoping the treasures would surface. With no guarantees that looking into that ol’ pan over and over again wouldn’t reveal only dirt.
The freedom was in the panning I was doing day in and day out. I was swirling that pan around and around out of love. Not out of expectation. Not for reward. Even if they ended up in prison. It’s still the right thing to do. I respect the life they’ve been given. And the responsibility to me as their mom.
This is love.
Like a steel ball in a pinball machine, I rolled these thoughts around in my head for a few years. At some point I realized that I could only get to this conclusion of loving these messy kids with no guarantees, because that’s how God loves me.
And this is love.
He has not guarantees with me either. He knew that when he sacrificed his own son — before I was even created. I’m a gamble, for sure. Loving me, investing in me, chasing after me. Who knows where that would end up. With my own un-doings, my outward sins and the sins no one sees, together with what life would throw at me… really, I’m a loose cannon. But God knows there’s gold in me. And so He patiently swirls and swirls the dirt around — with no guarantees the gold will surface.
This week, marks the 10 year anniversary of the Von Maur shooting. And the 10 year anniversary of the poignant moment of realization that there would be no guarantees on the outcome of my kids — their success or their failure.
Although their stories are still unfolding, my diamonds in the rough sons have proven to be worth all the time and effort. The circumstances in which they were raised were less than ideal, for sure. Life has not been kind or easy some years and the stats were certainly stacked against them. But they’re making some great choices and, so far, proving to be tenacious, strong and responsible. I think the dirt will continue to swirl around the pan, but I’m starting to see some gold. And I continue to hang on to the treasured lesson I learned:
There are no guarantees with kids. And that doesn’t change my job as a parent. Nor does it change the love.