by Rev. Todd Stocker
For me, the beginning of the new year is always exciting. What will the ensuing months bring? Where will I fail? Where will I succeed? How will I grow? Coupled with looking ahead, I always make it a practice to look behind. To reflect on the closing year, to remember, and to ask, “What has God been up to in my life?”
Like most of you, my days in 2009 were pretty similar to each other; I would wake up, think about my schedule, and step into the day only to come home, relax, and close out the hours hanging out with my family. Beginning to end. Pretty simple.
Photo of Makenzie Stocker by Caitlyn Cannon
But June 3 of this past year was different from any other. My 18-year-old daughter, Makenzie, was a professional dancer with the Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre. She and some of her friends decided to organize a photo shoot by the water for fun.She donned her leotard, secured her long, false eyelashes, and headed out the door to my parents’ home on Taylor Lake in Seabrook, Texas, the perfect setting to capture her graceful form. Everything went as planned.
The photographs were amazing. Poised on the dock, Makenzie and her partner leapt and “pirouetted” (whatever that is) as the camera froze them on film against the shimmering water and wispy pink sunset. Stunning.
At the end of the evening, they headed home. As was her habit, she called me to let me know she was on her way.
“Hi, Dad. I had so much fun! I love you. I’m on my way home.”
She never made it.
An hour went by before I noticed I hadn’t yet heard the back door slam and her announcement, “I’M HOME!” Maybe they had stopped to talk with my parents, I thought. Maybe they went out for a Jamba Juice (her favorite). Maybe she did come home after all, and I didn’t hear her glide upstairs to take a shower. So I started texting her.
“I thought you were on your way home.”
No response. I tried a few minutes later.
“You know you have to work tomorrow.”
Again, my phone was silent. Finally, we shot a final text to her:
“You better have a good reason for being late.”
At 8:10 that evening, only minutes after our last conversation, the car in which she was a passenger was broad-sided. Makenzie was killed instantly. One moment, she was here; the next, she was gone. My beautiful daughter, who loved the Lord and was loved by so many, was taken to be with Jesus.
When my wife, Kellie, and I arrived at the hospital, the E.R. staff immediately ushered us into the family waiting room and said they’d check on Makenzie’s status. There we sat, or rather, paced. Just my wife and me, alone with our fears, our questions, and our Lord.
After several year-long minutes, Kellie stepped out of our room and grabbed a police officer who was whispering to another officer in the hallway outside our door.
“Can you please tell us what happened to our daughter? Is she all right? Can we see her?”
The officer paused, stepped into our waiting room, and said the words I thought I’d never have to hear: “You’d better sit down.”
Honestly, I don’t remember him telling us that Makenzie was killed in the accident. He didn’t need to. I knew at that moment that our beautiful daughter, who was such a centerpiece of joy in our family, was dead.
In the days that followed, our family ventured through emotions that I didn’t know existed (or, at least, I didn’t think I’d ever experience). Pain, sorrow, and grief topped the list, partnered with hope, love, and confidence. Yes, you read that right; hurt and joy, loss and fullness. Feelings that don’t normally grace my experiential halls together were walking hand in hand as I prepared to bury my daughter.
Photo of Makenzie Stocker by Caitlyn Cannon
At Makenzie’s celebration service at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Houston June 8, my son and youngest daughter spoke beautifully about their love for their older sister. Kellie and I closed out the service with some final words, and I gave the blessing to the 1,300 people in attendance. With tears streaming, everyone in the room knew that God was there. And that He had gathered us to give us comfort and hope.
Over these past few months of loss, love, transition, and change, many people have remembered that day and said, “You both are so strong,” and “We admire your faith,” and even, “Even in the midst of your grief, you seem to be at peace.”
Truthfully, Kellie and I struggled to see how those accolades fit. But recently, I realized that the “strength, faith, and peace” that others recognize in us are not our creation. They had been given to us by our Lord. He had been preparing us for the evening that changed our lives forever.
You see, a long time ago, we began our days reading about this God who says He loves us. We began learning more about this “Divine Mentor” who opened our eyes to His power and grace. We understood that God had defeated death through the sacrifice of His Son, and we knew that He was faithful and still in control. Makenzie knew all of this as well.
So, on the evening of the accident, we knew who was in charge and to whom we needed to turn. We knew God’s character, His ability, His heart. We knew that Makenzie was alive in heaven because Jesus had changed her heart, and we knew she believed in Him as her Savior. We also knew that God is a God who wastes nothing; that this seemingly random accident has a purpose that is unfolding in the lives of all who knew Makenzie.
We don’t need to ask the “why” questions because God told us that His grace is enough. We don’t need to spiral down into the cold darkness of depression because God showed us the warm light of His love. We don’t need to fear tomorrow because His mercies are new every time the sun crawls out from below the horizon. Our strength, in the middle of our loss, was realized before June 3, and it carries us day-byday, morning by morning, momentby-moment.
I pray that God keeps you from the journey on which He has placed our family. But whatever the Lord has planned for you this year, never forget that every morning into which you walk, His compassion, love, and mercy are holding your hand. For our family, we know by God’s grace that every day that passes is a day closer to seeing Makenzie dance again. His compassion is new every morning.
Because of the Lord’s great love we
are not consumed,
for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness.
Lam. 3:22–23 NIV
About the Author: Rev. Todd Stocker (www.toddstocker.wordpress.com) is a writer and communicator. He lives with his wife, Kellie, and children Nathan and Maddie in Woodbury, Minn., where they attend Woodbury Lutheran Church.