August 27, 1982
Children’s laughter met our ears as I pulled up and parked our buggy in front of my cousin Floyd’s house. Floyd and Ruth lived quite a spell from us, but it was worth the trip because we had two girls who’d be meeting their cousins for the first time.
My bones were weary as I unhitched the horse, but I tried to hide my tiredness behind a smile. Irene and I had finished building our new house, and I was in the middle of remodeling the barn. Construction occupied my mind and time. If Amish men learn anything, it’s a good work ethic. As long as the sun is in the sky, there is work to be done.
Our two daughters, Suetta and Sarah Mae, raced toward their girl cousins. Dark-haired Sarah Mae was always able to keep up with her older sister. She’d learned to walk at nine months old and had never slowed down since. At seven and five, our girls were opposites in so many ways. Suetta was blond with blue eyes and Sarah Mae dark.
Marion, our third child and first boy, had coal-black hair. He was nearly four. Eli Ray, who looked very similar to Marion, was just a little more than two, and Irene was heavy with our next child. With two girls and two boys – and another on the way – I was blessed and thankful for the family God had given me.
Earlier that day Suetta had come in to greet me. It was one of her first days at the local Amish parochial school. She had walked home one and a half miles from the one-room schoolhouse.
“Hey, Dat!” She paused at the entrance to the barn. Her golden hair glowed in the sun. She waved, and I offered a quick wave back, but I didn’t stop to chat.
I said a simple hello to my daughter but not much more. I had to hurry so we could make it to the ice cream social on time. What I hadn’t realized was that short conversation with seven-year-old Suetta would be one of our last. The evening would be filled with conversation and laughter with family, but tears would descend with the darkness.
If I could go back, I would have set aside my work and lingered. I would have asked her about her day. I would have been more patient. I would have listened and remembered – always remembered – her voice.
I wish I could remember more about that night at the ice cream social too. Had Suetta’s cheeks turned pink as she raced around the yard with the other children? Had Sarah Mae’s eyes grown wide at the taste of the ice cream? Did I give the girls a hug as I lifted them into the buggy? I wish I had. Life changes so quickly, and what had been my biggest concern earlier – getting work done on the barn – mattered little compared to the tragedy we would soon face.
As we got ready to go home, our oldest son, Marion, who usually sat in the back with the girls, said, “Tonight I’m going to sit between you and Dat.” With that, we all climbed into the buggy.
“Gut,” Suetta called out, “it’ll leave more room for us to sleep,” and then she lay down next to Sarah Mae on the backseat, which Ora Jay had folded down into a cot. I didn’t know that those would be the last words I would ever hear her speak.
My head tilted back, resting against the seat back, and soon my eyes fluttered shut. My children’s soft breathing met my ears, mingling with the sound of buggy wheels and the horse’s footfalls as we made our way home.
The older girls snuggled down in the back of the buggy. Marion sat between Irene and me, with little Eli Ray on Irene’s lap. I finished hitching up the horse and climbed in. The silence from the back told me the girls would be sleeping soon. We never intended to fall asleep, but it overtook us at times. Thankfully, the horse knew the way.
For only one part of the ride home was it of utmost importance that I stay awake. It was a stretch of highway that split our country road in two. Sometimes, especially during the day, I had to wait minutes and minutes to cross because the traffic flowed so fast and heavy.
I don’t remember falling asleep to the clomp of the horse’s hooves, but I remember waking up briefly. We’d gone a ways down the road from my cousin’s place. My heavy eyelids lifted, and I peered through the dark night. In the distance, I noticed the stop sign ahead. I told myself I needed to stay awake for the crossing. But the night was quiet. Too quiet.
It was the blare of the horn that startled me first. The horn of a big truck. Loud, close. Then bright, white light. The jolting of the horse. The overwhelming screech of the semi-truck’s brakes. Headlights bore down. My heart leaped to my throat, and I knew it was going to be close. With a shout and a flip of the reins, I urged the horse forward. Not fast enough.
A crash of splintering wood cut into the night. My body hurled forward. My wife cried out. I don’t remember hitting the ground or standing to my feet. But there I was, peering through the inky darkness at Irene and our sons. She seemed fine. The boys were gut too. Shaken but fine.
The horse darted down the road, dragging the wheels and the shaft. More pieces of the buggy lay splintered at my feet. I turned around to look for the girls.
The moonlight wasn’t enough to penetrate the night. My knees trembled as I darted up and down the road, and my voice called their names over and over. “Suetta! Sarah Mae! Suetta! Sarah Mae!”
My eyes scanned the roadway, scattered with debris from the buggy. I didn’t see them. The semi-truck was coming to a stop far, far down the road. I later heard that the driver had gone to make a phone call to get help. The odor of burning brakes filled the air.
I darted across the dim highway toward the ditch, running and calling their names again. “Suetta! Sarah Mae!”
A spot of blond hair caught my attention. They were lying by the side of the road. I ran to them. They looked so small, lay so still. Both of them struggled for breath. They gasped. They needed help. I have to get them to the doctor. I turned back to the road. Seeing a passing car, I waved my arms.
“Hey, stop, stop!” The car slowed but then continued going. First one and then another. I waved my arms again, frantically, but no one stopped.
Stop! My girls! They need help! Stop!
Minutes passed, though it seemed like hours. With all my energy, I ran to the closest business, which was a hatchery. “Call for help!” They said they would.
I ran back to the girls, to check on them. To see. Both were gone. It was too late.
They were gone.
Another Amish man came by. I stood in shock as my girls lay lifeless in the ditch. Desperate, I did the only thing I knew to do.
“Let us pray,” I told him. We bowed our heads and prayed silently. Amish never pray aloud; it would be too prideful. The Lord’s Prayer filtered through my thoughts. It was the only prayer that would come to me. Even in my most heartbroken moment, I didn’t know how to connect with God.
I’d lived my whole life as an Amish man, but the God I lived my life for was distant and hard to approach. And when I needed Him most, I didn’t know how to find Him. Didn’t know where to take my pain.
I went back to find my wife. The ambulance had come, and she was being cared for. The boys were shaken but fine. Irene drifted in and out of consciousness. How would she ever make it after losing the girls?
I knew I was in the back of an ambulance, but why? Marion was crying. I should comfort him, but I couldn’t move. Couldn’t think.
The first thing I remember was people asking my name. I could hardly function enough to answer. I could hardly understand their questions.
“Irene. Irene, can you hear me?” Was I waking up from a bad dream?
“Irene, do you know where you are? Irene, do you know what happened?” A man’s voice filtered through. Or was it two men? They were talking to me. My body ached. My heart ached too, but I didn’t understand.
“Irene, the girls are gone.” It was Ora Jay’s voice breaking through the fog, and I tried to focus on it. Was he here? I looked around. I remembered lying on the road, but nothing else. I remembered leaving the ice cream social, but nothing after that.
“I hear you,” I responded. “I understand.” Somewhere deep inside I didn’t really understand that both our girls were dead. It wasn’t making sense. How? Why? How could this be possible?
The ambulance took us to the hospital. Everything had changed just like that. When I saw our parents in the waiting room, the truth of what had happened began to sink in. This wasn’t a bad dream. The girls were really gone.
Each of us was checked out at the hospital. We were okay, no broken bones. The staff had compassion for us. Everyone cried.
Our parents wept with us too, and their words matched those echoing in my heart. “Oh my, oh my, oh, how sad. It must have been God’s will,” they said. I’d been trained to believe that to be true, but the words bounced off my hurting heart. Our parents told us that my girls were in heaven, and I believed that. Yet even that didn’t help as I thought of the days ahead.
Darkness loomed, and God was silent.
None of us had any injuries that kept us in the hospital. When we went back to the house it was late, yet the house was all lit up. It was strange to see it so bright in a dark night because, without electricity, an Amish home rarely has any lights on. Friends had come and lit lanterns to greet us. But still, this brightness streaming from our windows was a reminder that something had gone terribly wrong.
The next few days were a blur, with people coming and going, providing food, and doing our chores. I had no interest in what was going on outside in the world anymore. All the things I had worked for – the farm, the animals – I didn’t care about. Our new house had a nice living room, but Irene and I never had taken the time to sit in it and enjoy it – to spend time with our children there. It showed me that the things of the world – the things we deal with every day – are going to pass away, and they won’t mean anything when we meet the Lord.
People would say, “Your girls are better off where they are. They are in heaven.” Over and over people said, “They are in heaven now,” but I longed to hear something else.
Something was going on inside me, and I needed comfort. I needed peace in my own soul. I knew my daughters were fine, but I was not. My soul was empty. My heart felt as if it had been ripped out of my chest. I felt alone. God seemed so very far away.
Today, looking back, Irene and I both wish someone would have shared Jesus with us in our broken state. Ja, we knew who He was. We knew of His sacrifice on our behalf. But we didn’t understand that He is an ever-present hope, that He is interceding for us before the Father, that He could be as real to us in the present as we hoped He would be someday in heaven. We had been taught that He had died for us, but we didn’t understand the grace of Jesus Christ and that we needed to invite Him into our hearts personally to receive that grace for forgiveness of our sins.
When we needed the truth most, it remained far from us.
We’d grown up Amish and lived our whole lives for God… the only problem was we did not know Him. Not in a way we later discovered we could.
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