A pre-dawn phone call from my daughter wrenched me from sleep. “Dad!” she gasped. “You have to pray. Allie is in an ambulance. She’s not breathing.”
My wife Susan and I prayed. Then I called my close friend and begged him to wake his wife and pray too. I needed heaven to mobilize. We needed more prayer than I knew at the time. We didn’t know yet that horrible violence had been inflicted on our granddaughter. These acts against her mowed a wide swath of damage across every life that touched Allie’s.
Allie is my granddaughter, born to my daughter, Charity, when she was 19. In the summer of 2006, Charity brought Allie home to live with us. Allie brought new life and brightness into our house. Six months later, on an unusually cold day in January, our hearts were broken when Charity decided to leave our South Florida home to live in gray San Francisco with Timmy, Allie’s biological father. They wanted to be a family.
Allie’s second call came an hour later. “Dad, Timmy shook her. He shook her and squeezed her and she stopped breathing,” my daughter said. My knees buckled, but I couldn’t find a chair.
Charity had been at a girlfriend’s house after a late-night shift, and Timmy had been home with Allie. That was the arrangement. One parent worked and the other watched Allie. Alternating shifts relieved them from the added financial strain of employing a babysitter. They lived in a fifth floor studio apartment in San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin District. The building was old and poorly maintained. The elevator was often inoperable, requiring tenants to hike up the stairs with armloads of groceries and babies.
When the paramedics arrived at Timmy and Charity’s apartment, Allie’s vitals were crashing. She wasn’t breathing, and her pulse raced as her weakening heart attempted to pump precious oxygen to her organs. A paramedic tested Allie’s capillary refill. He pressed the flesh on her arm with his thumb and counted how long it took for his thumb print in her flesh to disappear. For a healthy person, it’s immediate. On Allie’s skin, the print lasted several seconds.
As the paramedics squeezed air into Allie’s lungs with a bag valve mask, the elevator door disengaged from the lock, leaving its occupants stranded between floors. The paramedics manhandled the door open and climbed out onto the level above with Allie and their equipment, scrambled down the stairs, and sped to California Pacific Medical Center. Nurses and doctors worked to stabilize her. Tubes were inserted into her throat and a machine inflated her lungs with oxygen. Ten-month-old Allie remained in a coma.
She was admitted with a broken collar bone, a broken rib, and a broken fibula. Each injury was in a different stage of healing, indicating several traumatic insults spread out over time. When questioned by the emergency room doctor, Timmy calmly confessed to physically abusing Allie for over four months. He showed little emotion as he told the doctor. “He seemed relieved,” the ER doctor later told me. His confession elicited a strange peace in him.
I was in a daze the day after the phone call. It was Sunday so I went to church. As a pastor, it made sense to be with my church family as the crisis unfolded. The earliest flight I could get was on Monday. Time stood still. There’s a famous scene in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam” juxtaposing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with scenes of explosions and people being mowed down by machine gun fire. This is how the first day was. It felt like somebody else’s tragedy was unfolding while I looked on.
I arrived in San Francisco on Monday. As my cell phone picked up the local signal, I noticed I had voice mail. It was from John, Timmy’s father; Allie’s paternal grandfather. “Bryon, please call me when you get this,” the recording said. He answered my call and was frantic. “I can’t believe he did this! I hope he rots in jail!”
Those were my sentiments, too, but strangely, instinctively maybe, I told him, “John, if there’s anything Timmy needs right now, it’s his dad. You need to be the best father to him you can be.” Out of nowhere, the pastor in me showed up. I was startled, quite frankly. I discovered early that I couldn’t hate Timmy even if I wanted to, which was strange because many of my friends did not restrain their expressions of rage toward him. I wanted to keep an open door to his family. I didn’t want to blame them for the actions of their son. I couldn’t hate Timmy because I didn’t want his family to become the accidental targets of my anger. My impression of Timmy when I first met him after Allie was born was that of a bewildered kid in a big, frightening world. I felt sorry for him. After this happened to Allie, shock was added to deeper, inconsolable sorrow.
Another inmate beat Timmy so badly his first night in jail; he had to have his jaw wired shut. He ate his meals through a straw. This news sickened me. Maybe if I was looking at this as an onlooker rather than a participant, I would call this justice. But I didn’t feel avenged, and I didn’t want the attacker as an ally. This perpetuated chaos. I felt neither vengeance nor vindication—only nausea. It didn't bring Allie out of her coma.
I made my way to the pediatric intensive care unit at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. A polite, serious nurse escorted me into Allie’s room. Allie’s head was completely wrapped in a bandage, turban-like. She lay under the glow of a heat lamp that maintained her body temperature. Tubes from machines for breathing, eating, and delivering fluids and medicines snaked from machines into her mouth, nose, and veins. I wasn’t met with excited giggling as I had been in the past. There was only the sad whir and beeping and pumping sounds of machines keeping her alive. I leaned in and kissed her, but she didn’t know.
San Francisco’s director of child protective services called Charity and me to a meeting. She was hard on Charity. “You should have known something was hurting your daughter,” she said, her words heavy with rebuke and warning. Charity told her she wanted to give custody of Allie to my wife and me. The director of child protective services looked me in the eye and told me there was no way I should expect to simply take custody of Allie. The director doubted my wife, Susan, and I were qualified to care for Allie medically if she ever left from the hospital.
In the same week, while Allie was still in a coma, doctors and I began to have conversations about removing the artificial breathing apparatus Allie depended on. Allie’s ability to breathe on her own needed to be tested. If she could not breathe long term without the equipment, we would have to have another conversation.
I plead with God to heal her, but doubt and despair towered over faith. If God had been unavailable to keep her safe, why would he be available to heal? I used faith-filled words in my prayers, but neither my faith nor my words had value.
In the first week I was pummeled by information, decisions, and weighty conversations. The only improvement observed in the first week was her ability to maintain her body temperature without the heating lamp. This was not enough improvement for me. Anguish paralyzed me.
Somehow people from a local San Francisco church, Calvary Chapel San Francisco, heard about my situation. They visited me regularly in the hospital and brought me food and prayed with me and were quiet with me. My relationship with God was thin, but he made his presence known through the small band of new friends.
I did my best to be upbeat in my communication with our church family back home. I recruited people to pray for us. Perhaps God wasn’t hearing my prayers, but he definitely would work, I concluded, through the prayers of others.
At the end of the first week, doctors removed tubes from Allie’s throat. She began to breathe on her own, but she remained in a coma. Her first few breaths were labored, and throughout the first day and night breathing was hard work.
Susan arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the second week, and Allie started to respond and began to emerge from the coma. It was gradual, not like it happens in movies. Allie didn’t just wake up a little confused after too many days of sleeping. Only one eye fully opened the first day. The other slowly followed over the next few days. It was evident that she was in terrible pain.
Susan’s prayer life also suffered. Whenever she prayed for relief for Allie, it seemed Allie’s pain and discomfort would immediately increase. Prayer seemed to have contrary effects; it made things worse. Susan quit praying in the early days of our ordeal. Our entire belief system was flipped upside-down. My wife and I have watched God answer prayer in our lives and the lives of our friends because we followed him; we obeyed him and lived for him. Weren’t those the things that guaranteed that God would bless our lives? Not only was I confused, I was discouraged. Thinking about it now brings to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham watched God deliver what only God could: a son to a childless couple whose child-bearing years had come and gone decades ago. Abraham loved Isaac with all of his heart, and one day God required Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Bible doesn’t give us the details, but I believe Abraham’s belief system was flipped upside-down, too. “What about your promises God?” Abraham must have cried in anguish. “Haven’t I followed you all these years?”
I was learning that God was doing something much deeper in our lives than we ever expected. God gave Isaac back to Abraham. This happened near the end of Abraham’s very full life, but it was only the beginning of God’s plan to redeem men’s lives. So, too, we were in the very early stages of the work God was doing in and through us to include us in the same plan; redeeming lives. The work he was doing would only be visibly evident from a not yet developed perspective. Why God would let all this happen to us we couldn’t explain. This is the point where we began to learn to trust God in day-by-day increments.
We lived in the hospital for eight weeks with Allie until the day she was released. Susan learned how to care for Allie while we were there. She relieved the nurses from including Allie in their regular rounds. Meanwhile, the doctors in the pediatric unit became our biggest advocates in the bid to gain custody of Allie. Our case was turned over to a new social worker who was not antagonistic. In fact, Jack became our greatest ally and champion of our cause. In a stunning reversal, Allie's court appointed lawyer followed suit and began to make the case that awarding us custody was the best course of action for Allie.
On the same day Allie was released from the hospital, the courts awarded us custody of Allie. Becoming Allie’s foster parents came with two restrictions: we were not permitted to leave California, and Charity was only allowed supervised visits. She could not live in the same house with Allie. We decided to live with my sister in northern California, a six-hour drive north. We had to say goodbye to our house in Florida, my job as a pastor, and our 18-year-old son, Aaron, living in Florida.
That was the beginning of the hardest time in our lives. We didn't have the hospital to back us up. We didn't have doctors and nurses as ready resources. We didn't have a hospital keeping house and preparing our meals and getting medicine doses ready. We were totally on our own.
My wife and I went to war with each other over private moments of peace. Our days and nights were filled with battle, each claiming that the other wasn't doing his or her share. I was a selfless martyr and she was a slacker. We tore into each other like wounded animals. I wanted to leave.
“If you’re leaving, don’t wait,” Susan said. “If you’re going to do it, do it now so I can get on with figuring out how life is going to work.”
This wasn’t living. It wasn’t even surviving. I made a decision to serve my wife and Allie no matter what the cost. This was the only clear option. I couldn’t get Romans 12 out of my head. I needed to become a living sacrifice. The only way our little family unit would weather this was to serve selflessly, expecting nothing in return. This isn't personal piety and this isn’t an attempt at superior spirituality. It was the only rational thing I could do to survive. This is what God was waiting for me to discover. Being a living sacrifice isn’t just a mystical way of doing Christianity. It’s not a life of simply reading the Bible, memorizing a few verses, singing songs, going to church, and obeying a few rules. The way Christianity works was summed up best by Jesus when he said, “…whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:25 ESV).”
In his book, The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer wrote:
There can be no doubt that this possessive clinging to things is one of the most harmful habits in the life. Because it is so natural it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is; but its outworkings are tragic. We are often hindered from giving up our treasures to the Lord out of fear for their safety; this is especially true when those treasures are loved relatives and friends. But we need have no such fears. Our Lord came not to destroy but to save. Everything is safe which we commit to Him, and nothing is really safe which is not so committed.
This was the biggest step of faith I had ever taken because there were no guarantees and no way to survive a failure.
Meanwhile, Charity was despondent after losing custody of Allie. Twice I talked her out of suicide. She went days without sleep. She became unemployable. She ended up homeless, a 99-pound 20-year-old living on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley. She spent her nights up off the ground and out of sight in trees and on scaffolding of multi-story building projects. After about three months of living like this, she made friends at a local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. They opened up their homes, allowing her to sleep here a few nights and there for a few more, giving her much-needed rest and security. Soon she was able to find work as a short order cook and rent a room.
My son, Aaron, involuntary discovered solitude. Everyone that was ever close to him has moved a continent away. Aaron was in school when everything happened. He wanted to come out to California, to do something, but I told him to stay put. There was nothing he could do. Allie was in a coma. Charity was in shock. Thinking back, it would have been nice to have the family back together even in this crisis. But having the family truly back together was not going to take a trip across the country, it was going to take a trip back in time.
Susan felt utterly abandoned. At first, there was an overwhelming response to our situation. Friends and family flew out from Florida to help Susan when work took me out of town. Over time, our needs changed little, but people got on with their lives. Friends promised to help and provide relief, but they took one look at how much work Allie is and slowly faded from view.
Now, three years later, Susan and I are back in Florida and have officially adopted Allie. Susan and I stick together like we never have before. We live near close friends that encourage us and help when they can. It has been healing for us. “Why me?” I complained to Joyce, a motherly lady in my life.
“Why not you?” she shot back. “You did a great job raising your first two kids, you’re visible in the community as a pastor, and you have a strong marriage. Why wouldn’t God give this child to you? Who else would he give her to?”
Those simple words pierced my heart and peace washed over me. She spoke like an oracle, completely shifting my perspective. At first, I couldn’t get my mind off of what had happened to this little girl, to us, and to me. My faith was strengthened as I shifted focus from our situation and to the Creator God who delights himself by including us in his plans to the great amazement of all who take notice. Once we felt abandoned by God, but now we sense his presence and see his wisdom. We couldn’t do this without each other and we couldn't do it without the preparation of our hearts over our lifetimes. My life is full now as hard as it is to take care of a special-needs child. Yet this child is the source and the recipient of all my love at the same time.
Allie’s medical challenges will be continuous. She has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic due to brain damage sustained from shaking and oxygen deprivation. Her little body grows incorrectly, requiring surgery to prevent painful deformed development. Bones and muscle grow at different rates causing joints to migrate out of socket. She eats only puréed foods preventing teeth from strong development. Brain damage has severely limited her vision. Doctors say that she will never walk or talk or play like a normal child.
Susan is the biggest trooper. She’s embraced the task and held on with a relentless, unyielding grip. It’s more than motherly instinct. It’s mission. Of all of us, she has most deeply recognized that God picked us for this task. That being selected by God for this mission at this time in our lives is the best thing for us. That God has shown himself to be wise to wait until this precise time in our lives to do this thing. She loves being a mom again even if it’s the hardest thing that has ever happened. I always hear her say to Allie, “I love being your mommy."
I don't think about Timmy, Allie’s biological father, much. When I do, I try to pray for him. I see his mother often, but I don't think of her son at all except when Allie is having an unusually bad day. On those days my mind runs a feedback loop of blame. But I find myself allowing this pattern to run a much shorter course lately. I'm quicker to pray. I ask God to cause Allie's little life to somehow impact Timmy's redemption.
We want Allie to grow up to be a hero whose life blesses victims and perpetrators alike. Nobody is vindicated or avenged. The Cross enthroned a dying savior who said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Nor did they know what was coming: resurrection and new life. Death is the end of the road for offenders, but not for the forgiven. We want Allie to have such an understanding of the gospel that her repaired life is a signpost pointing to the redeemer who vindicates, justifies, and pours grace upon accusers, victims, and executioners alike.