It was Dec. 5, 1967. Saying goodbye to the pastor and his wife after babysitting their children, he slung his backpack over his shoulder and crossed the road to take the short path to the railway. At the end he turned and began to follow the tracks. It was darkening, snowing too, and he pulled the toque with the earflaps tightly over his head. Then the bushes on both sides of the track began to shimmer and reflect light, briefly making him wonder what made them do that.
Ronald was a 13-year old student at the Christian school in Houston, B.C. His sudden death sent shockwaves throughout the northwest Central Interior of the province. An inquest confirmed that the train engineer carried no blame for the accident.
One of a family of six, Ronald was a better-than-average student with a wonderful sense of humor. He planned to become a teacher. He and his brother Irwin, 11 at the time, had been inseparable: when you saw one, you’d see the other. Two sisters, Julie-Ann and Margaret, were too young to understand the impact of what had happened. Early the next morning 4-year-old Julie-Ann was heard singing at the top of her lungs, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” But Irwin knew.
The interment took place at the town’s small cemetery on an exceptionally cold winter day. Led by the pastor at whose home Ronald had been babysitting, it was attended by many, including Ronald’s grandparents, who had flown over from Ontario. The memorial service that followed became a symphony of praise. Many tears flowed, but with the hope and assurance of new life, the Lord’s faithfulness was joyfully celebrated in word and song. The school and church communities showed their compassion and care in more tangible ways: the kitchen counters were literally covered by foodstuffs of all sorts.
Ronald was a student in my combined grade 7/8 class. He was also my son. When I came back to school the following Monday I was profoundly moved to see that my colleagues had thoughtfully removed Ronald’s desk. Together with a TV that the mayor of Houston had brought in for Irwin, they were gestures of love that deeply touched us. But however good all God’s people had been to us, even after the overwhelming display of God’s love and care at the memorial service, our hearts yearned for more. We still sought an answer to the question we had often been told we could never ask of God: Why? Why did we have to lose our wonderful child? We loved him so much!
We found an answer in the opening words of Isaiah 57: “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.” (NIV)
The verse brought us a great measure of understanding, acceptance, and peace.
The accident had other results. More than ever before, both my wife Celia and I experience deep empathy with others who have to go through difficult times. Ronald’s death also forged between the pastor’s family and ours a strong bond of friendship that has lasted to this day. But when one of our other kids would be late coming home, we’d worry much, mostly unduly.
We had our son Ronald for nearly 14 years. They were good years, but then he left us for something even better. In the many years that followed, it would occasionally happen that my wife and I would just look at each other, and we’d remember, and tears would come. But God is good, and afterwards we could always laugh again.
About the Author
Frank DeVries is a past principal of Christian schools in Wyoming, Ont., Houston, B.C., and Vancouver, B.C. He and his wife, Celia, attend Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church in Surrey, B.C.