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Broken Bodies, Shattered Lives

Paul Beckingham describes his family's rocky road to physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery from a near-fatal accident in Kenya.


I don't remember the split seconds before the impact. Not the angry skid of tires, nor the fearful skrieks from my wife Mary, our son Aaron, and his young Kenyan friend Daniel. Not even the smashing of glass and the ripping of metal as the car crumpled in on top of me.

With her good arm, she coaxed Aaron along, whispering gentle, comfort-words of love. He was traumatized to the point of collapse.

But Mary remembers it all. Clearly. It is burned into her consciousness. The memory of our spinning car, smashing against the side of the military semi-trailer that struck us, spins in her mind like a nightmare smashing against the pattern of our lives. And for Aaron, too—even more than one year later.

The car came to an abrupt halt at the edge of a sudden drop. And so did normal family life for us in that awful moment. The predictable rhythms of our lives were put on hold. So were Mary's feelings. She froze them out in a deliberate and conscious act of her will.

She knew in that instant that she could attend to the mammoth needs of her family or start to process her own deep grief—but not both at the same time. She did not have the energy for two huge tasks. So, just like a million other mothers, she chose to put the demands of family above her own needs. She went into automatic pilot—into rescue mode—busying herself with arranging for family life to continue as best it might without a husband and a father.

In those earliest hours she thought I must be dead—if not at the roadside, surely before emergency medical help could save me. She arrived at the hospital numbed, cut, and in deep shock, guarding her badly broken collar bone. With her good arm, she coaxed Aaron along, whispering gentle, comfort-words of love. He was traumatized to the point of collapse. He screamed and wept, "I just want to go home, Mommy!"

But none of us realized that home as we knew it would never be the same. The accident had changed all our lives. Irreversibly. We had looked into the face of death. In one afternoon four of our children had come horribly close to losing both parents and their youngest sibling. Old securities disappeared. New anxieties emerged.

For five days my family waited for me to die in the Aga Khan hospital in Nairobi. I had broken or displaced fourteen bones, fractured my skull, suffered a brain injury, and had to have my foot saved by the skill of microsurgeons. I frequently mistook Mary for my daughter Hannah. I kept telling her, "You know, I have been in a very serious car accident."

Each time she would reply softly, "So have I." Just as frequently I would look around my mosquito-filled private room and say with great satisfaction, "Isn't this a beautiful hotel room." Mary would hold my hand and try to speak above the roar of construction outside the window.

Then Mary told me she had made an important decision. We would go back to Canada for the advanced medical care critical to my survival. I had experienced many lucid moments in those first few days. But as I listened to her I came back into reality for the first time since the accident. I realized how badly I was injured. My heart broke. I cried. I groaned. I felt an utter failure as a missionary. I hated myself for abandoning the people I had come to serve and had grown to love.

… just when we think the God whom we worship had better show up or all is lost, He does show up.

Mary assumed control. Completely. Magnificently. And, like so many wives and mothers in similar emergency situations, paid the heavy price in stress, depression, and anxiety. The nurturing and protecting impulses kick into action—but at the expense of self care and self nurture. And so it is. When one family member suffers a trauma, all do.

So what does the road to recovery look like? Totally impossible. But just when we think the God whom we worship had better show up or all is lost, He does show up. Never in the ways we might predict or arrange if we were God for a day. Always too late by our busy schedule—but exactly on time by the schedule of His deep love for us.

"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless," God invaded our reality (see Romans 5:6). Just the way He does. Without pain? No. Without room for doubt and questions? Not usually. Then how? Mainly through His people. They furnished our house, provided winter clothing, met our financial needs. Strangers who had prayed for us brought hot meals to our door.

These ways of God gently, firmly remind my children that all things will work for good even when they scream that they cannot see it. They profoundly convince me that whether I live or die God loves me, because He loves me.

They open Mary's tight grasp of control on our family security and slowly teach her to laugh again, to relax in God's love, and to rest in His care. Because He can, after all, be trusted in all things.

The Beckinghams are Canadian Baptist Ministries missionaries to Kenya, now living in Vancouver, BC.

Originally published in The Link & Visitor, January 1999.
linkvis@baptistwomen.com

 

 
 
 
 

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