It’s amazing how intuitive young kids are about their parents’ feelings.
Early in 2015 my six-year-old daughter, Kitty, climbed into my lap when I was sitting alone in silent contemplation.
‘Don’t worry Daddy, we’ll all see each other again in heaven one day.’
‘That’s right, sweetheart … ’, I replied, overwhelmed by her sweet empathy for me and by the simple, powerful conviction behind her words.
As I hugged her in tearful gratitude, I was struck by a notion that I’d never considered since I was Kitty’s age. Literally, it was a physical jolt. Both a visceral feeling like a blow to the chest and an electrifying thought, simultaneously.
Did I really believe what Kitty just said to me? If so, what was I doing about it?
The reason for my sadness and Kitty’s outreach was that I was missing my son, Jordan.
Biologically, I’m Jordan’s step-dad, though we chose to love each other as father and son, and as genuine mates and companions. Of the many, many reasons I’m grateful to my wife, Melissa, foremost of them is that the gift of parenting her son made a man of me. Jordan and I grew together. Likewise, I treasure our elder daughter, Montana.
Kitty was a blessing for the whole family when she came along for Melissa and me in 2008. We’re blended, but we’ve never described ourselves as a ‘step’ family. In our hearts, we’re sons and daughters, brother and sisters.
Missing Jordan, then and now, is constant.
Some days it is stabbing, violent grief. On others it’s a softer ache – the emptiness of an absent loved one. And there are lots in-between. Always, there’s the gnawing feeling of waste.
Jordan was an energetic, rambunctious kid. Before his early teens, it was challenging to shepherd his physicality and his instincts for taking short cuts into positive behaviours. By his early teens, a profound love of rugby, surfing, good friends and a developing sense of leadership was shaping him as a young man to be proud of.
He’d kept the cheeky mischief of his childhood, but his values were good.
In 2012 he began a carpentry apprenticeship. And, as on the rugby field, he earned his reputation as a hard worker, a quick learner and a valued team player.
He had his own share home in Brisbane, while our family lives on the Gold Coast.
On the morning of 8 December 2012, Melissa and I were sharing our routine morning tea and reflecting on how pleased we were with the man Jordan had become. At 18 and a half, he was finding his place in life and making some mature plans for himself. We were expecting to catch up with him later that day after his first-ever work Christmas party the night before.
The door buzzer interrupted our reverie.
‘Who could it be at this early hour?’
It was the police.
Our beloved Jordan was dead.
He’d chosen to drive back to the Gold Coast late at night rather than to wait until the next day.
Jordan was speeding and under the influence of alcohol and cannabis when he collided with a stationary vehicle containing five other young adults. Four of the occupants of that car were killed, as was Jordan himself.
Parents could partially imagine our nightmare.
The first months and years were somewhat of a blur as we strove to simply be functional, invested and present for Kitty and Montana. Naturally, people beyond our nuclear family kindly did their best to facilitate some form of healing in us. But of course, there is no popular new-age wisdom, nor any neat self-help platitude that ties a neat bow around ‘recovery’.
Melissa, Montana, Kitty and I are immensely fortunate that we’re able to be each other’s best supports and most effective therapists. Our shared experience and our shared love of Jordan gave us a self-contained way of moving forward in life in those first few years. As much as doing so may have frustrated people who loved us, confounded as they were that the linear concept of ‘getting better’ was not an expectation of ours.
In 2015, Kitty started Grade 1 at St Andrews Lutheran College at Tallebudgera. We sent her there because of its fabulous reputation in our Gold Coast area. The college was regarded as having a great sense of community and excellent values.
That these values were Christian values wasn’t even slightly part of the decision-making process. Funny … you can drive past a giant cross at the front of the school every day and not make the connection between great community, excellent values and Christianity!
That would change for us on the day Kitty crawled up into my lap to reassure me with her beautiful, pure faith.
Did I really believe what Kitty just said to me?
There’s little point labouring on our spiritual histories other than saying that while we each experienced the routine of churchgoing and the perfunctory protocols associated with Sundays, we did not have authentic relationships with Christ. No lasting thread beyond our childhood family obligations. No understanding beyond the idea that the teachings of Jesus were ‘good’.
Our only frames of reference were highly binary versions of what Christianity was. The stilted, formulaic ceremonial experiences of our childhood, or the ecstatic fever we observed occasionally in the charismatic churches. The former cold and distant, the latter just a bit too confronting.
We generally viewed Christians as people who believed themselves perfect – somehow better than everyone else. Which was plainly hypocritical, as every Christian we knew had their faults, right? Let alone the evil infamy of child abusers and TV fraudsters.
Christ, himself, wasn’t apparent to us. After all … isn’t the answer to all enlightenment contained within, not without? How could an intelligent, modern person accept that we don’t control all outcomes?
And, above all, how could the version of God as we understood him possibly exist when our son was dead and responsible for destroying so many other lives?
These weren’t even questions we asked ourselves. We’d simply not been curious. Our truths were entrenched. Comfortable. The comfort was shattered by the mind-bending gut-punch the Holy Spirit gave me out of the blue.
Did I really believe what Kitty just said to me? Did I believe my reply to her? ‘Yes sweetheart, we will all see each other in heaven one day.’
It seemed like the decision was already made for me. I was going to pursue the answers. Kitty, the mini-evangelist, invited me to ‘her’ church at St Andrews that week. Melissa and Montana were out of town.
So, Kitty and I walked into Good Friday worship and into the loving arms of the Father who had never, ever given up on us. Who’d never, ever turned from us, though we’d turned from him.
We discovered the awesome truth of grace almost instantly once we took the easy step of accepting it. The eternal gift that we’d always had in the palm of our hand, unopened.
The fellowship, love and support of our ‘St Andrews family’ have been beyond profound. ‘Transformational’ would be the best one-word description.
Through coming to know Christ, we’ve learned so much about ourselves. That such burdens as we have can’t be set aside, left behind, covered over, or controlled. That when we take them humbly to him, he’ll uplift us to carry them with his purpose.
For us, that’s meant an end to introspective ‘what-ifs’ and the start of dedication to service.
It’s also meant embarking on the spiritual process of understanding God’s bestowment of choice upon us and learning about sin and forgiveness. And, lo and behold, Christians don’t think they’re perfect after all! Nor does the roof of St Andrews collapse every Sunday when a massive sinner like me walks through the doors.
In time, we’ve found a sense of peace and mission in doing whatever we can to prevent any other family from enduring what Jordan’s victims’ families and our own family have endured.
Since 2017, Melissa has been engaging with young people around Australia, facilitating a genuine social movement for changed driving behaviours, with highly relatable messages about love, family and the empowerment of choice. Students are challenged to own authentic accountability to protect their families and communities from the preventable misery of youth road trauma.
The program and presentations are advocated as uniquely impactful on the teen driving cohort by police, educators, students and parents throughout Australia, as well as by organisations such as the Australian Road Safety Foundation and Youth Leadership Academy Australia.
In 2019, we founded YOU CHOOSE Youth Road Safety, a registered not-for-profit with an independent board and the constitutional purposes of engaging every Australian high school, and embedding as an experiential source of truth, perspective and commentary in public discourse on the subject of youth road trauma.
By the grace of God, we’re blessed with plentiful opportunities to connect with young drivers and their communities. This mission has led us. Not the other way around. One life saved; one family spared will be enough.
Peter McGuinness and his wife Melissa are co-founders of YOU CHOOSE Youth Road Safety and the family worships at St Andrews Lutheran Church Tallebudgera in Queensland. To book a YOU CHOOSE Youth Road Safety presentation at your church, group or school, or to make a donation, visit the website.