Sacred Stories: Remembering Jake
This week's Sacred Story comes from Dr. Wayne Ballard, who has been gracious enough to share with us the story of the loss of his son, Jake. Brendan and Sarah had the privilege of studying under Dr. Ballard at Carson-Newman university, and we are so grateful to him and his wife, Kim, for allowing us to share this with our readers. We hope to honor Jake's memory, and we hope that those who have experienced similar losses take comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
Wayne & Kim Ballard make Charlotte, North Carolina their home. They are thankful for friends, family, and time together. You can frequently find them at their place at the beach, or off on the next great adventure
Henderson “Jake” Ballard was born December 15, 1998. Jake was a bundle of energy and kindness. He was always playing with his two older brothers Brack and Zachary. Being eight years behind Brack and four years behind Zachary, little Jake never had to say a word. All he had to do was point and grunt or get out one syllable and his older brothers were on the move. At seventeen months of age he was barely talking, saying words like hot, momma and dada. He had big feet and hands. His feet were so big that even at 17 months of age he only had one pair of shoes that were his own, and he really didn’t like wearing them. He enjoyed hearing me play my acoustic guitar. When I played a recording of classical guitar music he would often point to the speaker and yell, “Dada!” Life was very good.
Our family lived in the old Buies Creek Baptist Church parsonage on the corner entrance into the campus of Campbell University. Our home was a familiar landmark for longtime residents and now houses the Security Department of the university. Coming to Buies Creek was an answered prayer for me and my family. I had longed to teach in a tenured track position, and Campbell University afforded me that opportunity. My wife was caring for the boys and serving part time at Buies Creek Baptist Church as the Minister to Children. It was there where our family began to flourish with my wife and sons, and it was also there where our world was shaken to its foundations.
On May 7th, 2000 on a late Sunday afternoon, Kim and I were at our usual posts. Kim had taken the boys to church. Jake was stationed in the church nursery. I was at a deacon’s meeting in Dunn, North Carolina where I served as an interim pastor. It also just happened to be graduation weekend at Campbell University. My meeting was interrupted with the news that my youngest son had stopped breathing in his sleep and they had taken him to Good Hope Hospital in Erwin, North Carolina. Leaving the meeting I quickly drove to the hospital only to learn that they had pronounced him dead having tried everything available to resuscitate him. Our little blue eyed angel was gone. The next few days were a blur. I didn’t eat for several days. Finally my mother convinced me to start eating once again. The funeral came and went. So many people poured their love and support from all over the world for me and my family. I sang a lullaby I had written for Jake and used to sing for him before bed every night. It was a dark, dark time.
It was a dark time for my family as well. All the “firsts” were on the way: the first Fathers’ Day after his death, his next birthday and then Christmas. I can clearly remember that next Christmas morning. Kim and I looked at each other when we woke and each commented that neither one of us wanted to celebrate what had always been a wonderful day for each of us growing up and together with our children. Ultimately, we decided that Brack and Zachary needed us, so we soldiered on. It was difficult with both of us dealing with such powerful emotions and loss, but to try and care for children who were also dealing with new emotions and loss was exponentially more difficult. All four remaining members of our family dealt with and still deal with this loss in different ways.
One commitment I made from day one was to not rely on crutches to cope with life’s haymaker. I made a vow to Kim and my friends that I would not have any alcohol for at least one year after Jake’s death. Truth is, I have never been much of a drinker, even socially, but I wanted to make sure the allure of drowning away my sorrows never became a reality. I also eschewed taking sedatives or sleeping pills. This of course may not be the best approach for everyone, but it was the approach I chose and I wanted to face my pain and not mask it or try and escape from it.
A few weeks following Jake’s death, I had my first professional business trip that had been scheduled for at least a year before. I attended an International Conference with Hebrew language scholars at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, Illinois. This conference was filled with meals, rekindling of friendships, and seminars. I still feel badly for my colleagues who had to deal with a “grieving father” for the length of that meeting. While in Chicago I took the occasion to watch the White Sox and my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians. I had great seats and went to the game by myself. For some reason, my colleagues who also had earned PhD’s in Hebrew Language were not at all enamored with baseball. It turned out to be a tough game. All I can remember is that everywhere I looked I saw two-year-old little tow heads throughout the crowd. Everywhere I looked I thought I saw Jake.
It was a dark time. My wife could not sing in the choir as she loved to do. She would often ask others to pray for her as she shared she was not able to pray herself. We shared the verse and song Great is Thy Faithfulness at Jake’s funeral. We wanted others to know that we still believed it. But we were not able to form those notes or words with our own lips at that hour. One of the true blessings of the many blessings we have encountered over the years is the sacrifice and love by the Currin family who were long time trustees of Campbell University. Helen and Hank were members of the church I was serving as Interim Pastor when Jake died. Helen came to me at the funeral and placed the keys to her place at Wrightsville Beach and said Wayne, Hank and I don’t go there much these days, I hope you can get away and find some peace. The times at her beach place and on the sand at Wrightsville beach just listening to the beating waves or watching a distant storm over the ocean were life renewing.
Losing a child is a difficult and very personal journey. There is not a formulaic system for surviving. Every person who has lost a child gets by at first one day at a time. Everyone grieves differently, and we all respond to this grief in different ways. The rich platitudes and contrived expressions we often hear and even sometimes say when we don’t know what to say are in the end meaningless. Words are vacuous and without effect. Kim and I are mindful today when we learn about the loss of a child of someone we have known well, or just met. Several years ago, I was part of the writing of a book focusing on the loss of a child published by the Religion Department of Carson-Newman University. Several members of our department had lost children and we gave copies of the book to pastors and churches of the larger Tennessee convention. I have often purchased copies of this book for those I encounter who recently lost a child with the instructions that they are probably not ready for this book yet, but with God’s grace they may be one day. It truly grieves me to welcome others into the community of fellow sufferers who have lost children. Though everyone’s journey is different, we all have insight into the level of difficulty the journey will be for the parents and families.
Jake’s death was 23 years ago. Much has happened since then. Both of our sons are grown men with wives of their own. We have two lovely grand-daughters, one is currently four and the other is two. The youngest looks very much like Jake. There still remains a chasm in my heart from the rupture I experienced when Jake passed away. But there is also hope, life and newness. My wife and I are blessed with a loving family and we rejoice in family gatherings, laughter together, and being the family we were meant to be. The “firsts” have all come and gone many times. Losing Jake on graduation weekend, I often have a deep emotional connection between these events and the loss of my son. Most years I am able to attend college or university graduations, but there are days when I just cannot function. On those occasions I have recused myself from participating in these events. Over the years, I have had many administrators chide and ridicule me for not being able to function at graduations, yet, I have sometimes just quietly chosen to stay away. The opinions of others do not get to dictate what I am able to handle emotionally or influence the journey of grief that is mine.
My family and I have indeed enjoyed much laughter and happiness as a family over time. We have so much to be thankful for in life. One such example is the quiet getaway Kim and I have provided on the Carolina Coast which serves as a place of renewal, re-creation, and retreat. We share this home equally with our sons and their families. We simply call this getaway, “Jake’s Place.” As long as I live, I will never forget the tenderness and thoughtfulness of Hank and Helen Currin placing the keys to their beach house in my hands on the day of the funeral. For them and all the others who have made this journey alongside us, we say thank you.
Life is often filled with joy. Life is sometimes filled with pain. For each of these times we are thankful.