A warm spring morning greeted me as I stepped from the car. Birds were singing atop the giant oaks, new leaves glistening in the bright sunlight. The valley beyond was a lush carpet of green. Everything around us spoke of new life.
In contrast to a day that should bring joy and happiness, there was only sadness. Today we gathered to bury my grandson.
The phone rang early on Friday morning as I was checking my to-do list. It was Memorial Day weekend and my husband and I were co-hosting a barbeque to celebrate his twenty-fifth class reunion. Last minute preparations needed to be completed before the much anticipated gathering of old friends.
I lay my pen across the list as I checked the caller ID. A smile crossed my face as I recognized my daughter’s cell phone number. Jessica and her husband were on vacation in Branson, Missouri, planning to stop by here later in the day on their journey home. That’s just like her; excited to tell me they were on their way.
“Hello”, I sang into the receiver. A second of silence, then Derrick began to speak. His trembling voice made him difficult to understand, but I knew something was horribly wrong! I soon realized that Jessica was in labor, although it was months too early.
Following a quick call to my husband and grabbing a few necessities, Curtis and I were on our way to Branson – a seven-hour drive.
Although Derrick relayed to us in one of his many phone calls that the doctors did not expect their baby to live, I remained hopeful. He couldn’t die. That just doesn’t happen. At least not to our family. That only happens to other people.
Then the dreaded phone call came. Drake Lee Ploutz had been born at 7:05am, but lived on this earth only 55 minutes. Not long enough. It could have been hours, days, or years that he lived, but when your grandson is gone, it is never long enough.
A very long five hours later, we arrived at the hospital where Drake was born…and where he died. Derrick, Jessica, Curtis and I exchanged powerful, loving hugs and cried and cried and cried. There was very little to say, at least nothing that would help any of us at the time. So the rest of the day was just spent being together – wishing Drake were there with us and crying because he was not.
After Derrick’s parents arrived, a short, dark haired nurse brought to us our precious bundle, wrapped in layers of warm blankets topped with a soft blue hand knit afghan. I was the first to hold our little angel, followed by his other grandmother, his grandfathers, then, finally he was returned to his grieving parents. We all took turns holding him and hugging him and loving him through a blur of tears. It was so hard to believe it would be the only time we would ever get to hold this precious grandson. We took many pictures, because that is what grandparents do, so we can show them to family and friends. And because these were the only pictures we would ever have of Drake.
Branson has always been a special place for Derrick and Jessica. They honeymooned there and have returned at least once yearly for the following five years. I thought of how much they had loved it there, and wondered if, after this tragedy, they would ever return. My wonder was soon resolved as Drake’s parents revealed to us that they would be leaving him here in the Ozarks, in a little church cemetery a few miles north of town.
Curtis and I were stunned at this information. We had assumed they would bring Drake back to Kansas to be buried at a local cemetery, either at one of their hometowns or where they now reside. If it were the expense of having him brought home, we would cover that.
Derrick and Jessica then explained that they really WANTED him buried there in the Ozarks. “We love this place. It has always been special to us. What better way to honor our son than to leave him in this beautiful place that means so much to us.” They concluded, “This way we won’t avoid coming back here, to pretend it didn’t really happen. We will want to return even more now to visit our firstborn.”
Tuesday arrived and a gathering of Drake’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends assembled at this cemetery just down the hill from a little country church, to say our goodbyes. Most had driven many hours to attend his memorial service. All had been so excited to welcome him into the family, yet, before they had the chance to know him, they must bid their goodbyes. Countless tears were shed before the service as mementos – a fishing lure from his Daddy, a small teddy bear by a grandmother, a toy tractor by a grandfather - were placed among the many beautiful flowers adorning the gravesite.
A local pastor led the simple service with words of hope and encouragement. He then nodded at Drake’s parents, seated next me. Jessica released the grip on my hand as she and Derrick stood. I knew they planned to release a balloon at the end of the service and assumed this is what they were doing.
These young, grief stricken parents took a few steps beyond the small white box containing their precious son, and hands tightly clasped together, turned toward those who came to comfort them.
Derrick swallowed visibly, then raised his eyes to face us. He spoke of their excitement of the anticipation of this precious gift from God. He acknowledged that although today was the saddest day of their lives, the day they were able to hold their dear son had been the most joyous.
I was totally taken aback as Jessica then looked up and began speaking. How could she get up in front of all of us in her grief? I soon learned from my daughter that God had given her a faith stronger than her grief. She told of an event on the day that Drake was born. “Derrick had gone back to our cabin to retrieve our belongings. It was before our parents had arrived and I was alone for the first time. Lying there with my eyes closed, I felt a hand holding mine. Assuming it was Derrick, I squeezed the hand and opened my eyes. No one was there. I waited a bit, thinking maybe he had just stepped out of the room for a minute. But he didn’t return for at least another thirty minutes. I told him what had happened, and it was then that we knew. While Derrick was gone, God had been there with me, holding my hand, assuring me that even in the worst of times, he will be there with us. And that’s how I know we’ll get through this”.
Then together, they released a white balloon. We stood silently, watching it soar higher and higher toward heaven, where we know that Drake is now safe in Jesus’ loving arms.