A parent’s worst nightmare.
On Wednesday, April 26 we finally moved all the way out of Fort Knox and had our final inspection the following day. My husband and I both grew up with Active Duty military fathers and spent our childhoods moving about every three years, so for us moving from pillar to post is routine. But we figured out that we each had lived on Fort Knox longer than anywhere else in our lives and our sons considered it “home.”
Saturday, April 29, the boys and I attended worship with our new congregation while Gregg was at National Guard. During the service, our youngest son Johnathan Eugene “JEB” Bridgeman read an entire chapter from Leviticus . He had recently unpacked the three devotionals that he had going and had asked us for a better study Bible for his birthday which would fall on May 25.
Gregg unexpectedly got released on Saturday afternoon and I was so happy he could come and spend the night in his own bed with his family. Gregg stopped at the outlet mall on his way home and got on a video call with Jeb and, together, they picked him out a new pair of Chuck Taylor high tops. He arrived home and unpacked the car. Jeb laced up his new shoes and announced he was going for a walk to break them in. He hugged his dad and whispered a quick, “I love you,” in his ear. Then he hugged me. We said our “I-love-yous” —as we always do— and I added a redundant, “Be careful.” Jeb was always careful but mommas always emphasize caution.
I playfully slapped my son’s rock hard abs. My little boy was now a few inches taller than me with thick, sinewy arms and a man’s chest. He was still my little boy but the baby fat had all melted away and I could see this man-boy embracing his adulthood in the years ahead.
At a little after 8:30 that night, Gregg and I admitted to each other that the stress of the move and the ongoing remodeling had exhausted us. We wanted to go to bed and get some restorative rest. Gregg got in his pajamas and I called Jeb who informed us that he was at the Walmart, less than two miles away, and that we didn’t need to come pick him up. It was still light out. He was close. He would arrive home in thirty minutes or so.
Gregg and I chatted until 9:20 and Jeb still had not arrived. Then I called his phone and a stranger’s voice, a grown man, answered. “Whose phone are you calling?”
“My son’s phone. Jeb Bridgeman,” I answered. Beside me, Gregg silently got up and went to shed his pajamas and get dressed again.
“Ma’am this is (I don’t remember) with the Winchester Police Department. Where is your son supposed to be?”
I already knew. He didn’t have to tell me. But, I answered anyway, “He’s walking home from Walmart.”
The officer took a breath and said, “Ma’am, there’s been an incident and, if this is your son, I’m sorry to have to inform you, but he’s deceased.”
I screamed Gregg’s name.
Though it had only been seconds, Gregg walked out of our bedroom now fully dressed, raised a calming hand, and said, “We don’t know anything for sure. Don’t lose hope.”
The police officer said, “You need to come down to the intersection of the Bypass and Redwing as soon as you can. Can you get here? I can send someone.”
Gregg drove Scott and me to the scene which was just over a mile away. I frantically tried to get Kaylee or her husband on the phone. We arrived and Gregg told us to stay in the van while he went to talk to the Police officers.
Not far away, a sheet covered a tiny body that was far too small to possibly be covering the six foot tall man-boy I had just given a hug.
I watched as my husband steeled himself and went over to the body. When the coroner lifted the sheet, I saw the thin thread of hope my husband had been clinging to get severed in an instant.
He made his way back to us. He grabbed me and Scott and wrapped us up in his arms. Even though I knew what he was about to say, when he said the words, “Jeb’s gone,” I felt like my heart would simply stop beating.
Gregg held us up and embraced us until I could feel the ground under my feet again.
Our daughter arrived. Kaylee sat with us and we just tried to wrap our minds around what had happened. Her husband had to fly in from Florida and wouldn’t get here until 10:30 the next morning.
The rest of the early morning hours were spent coordinating with the local Coroner and the transplant team in Louisville. When we arrived at the Coroner’s office around 2 that morning, Gregg said he would not prevent me if I insisted that I needed to see Jeb’s body, but he begged me not to. I decided not to.
After we recovered from the shock, Gregg, Kaylee, Alex her husband, Scott and I began to mourn in different ways. We were embraced in an overwhelming way not only by the community we had just departed from, but also by our new community to which we had just returned.
Our chapel and homeschool community at Fort Knox helped us from a distance with the memorial service details and provided a potluck meal for the attendees of the service. Jeb’s Civil Air Patrol wing volunteered to perform as color guard during the ceremony.
Scott opened the memorial service by reading from the book of Psalms. Kaylee, with her husband beside her, then spoke about her brother, Jeb. My father took the podium and talked about what God does at funerals (He weeps). Jeb’s namesake, Gene, who also voices many of my audiobooks, read from the book of John. Jeb’s godfather, Gary, then shared an intimate memory and confessed that he considered Jeb’s faith to be stronger than his own. A dear friend who had made her way there from Miami sang Jeb’s favorite song “Brother” by Needtobreathe just beautifully.
I was so shocked when I stood to take the podium to find that while I had sat staring at Jeb’s picture from the front pew, the chapel had quietly filled to overflowing with people. Overflowing.
Jeb’s grandfathers and grandmother and every aunt and uncle along with dozens of cousins had made their way there. Distant relatives from both mine and Gregg’s side of the family were there. The wife of the pastor who had baptized Jeb in Las Vegas when Jeb had surrendered his heart to Christ had arrived the night before. His Taekwondo teacher, Master Lee, and his wife were there. His fourth-grade teacher had traveled there from North Carolina. His homeschool group, authors-editors-agents who had met him at various functions or conferences I had attended over the years, soldiers from Gregg’s Army National Guard unit, a fellow Space Camp alum, Chaplains he had sung for, musicians he had played violin for, rabbi’s he had studied under — more than 300 mourners from 3 countries and 14 states had gathered in that room to mourn along with us.
I spoke after we sang “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Spafford. I felt led to speak on the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and what it means to give God thanks in ALL things, in EVERY circumstance, even when you don’t want to and even when it seems impossible. Then I listed off all of the things surrounding this situation for which I was thankful. I spoke about my desire to reach the point in this journey when I could also claim, “It is well with my soul.”
Gregg talked about Jeb’s joy and his bright laughter. He cracked some of Jeb’s favorite corny jokes. “Not much. What’s ‘snu’ with you?” He concluded with the fact that clearly everyone in the room had loved Jeb — and he informed them that Jeb had loved them all back. Jeb loved life, and Jeb loved people. He loved hard in a way that was passionate and enduring.
Gregg, Kaylee, Alex, Scott and I released fourteen dark blue balloons and a few seconds later, Georgia, Jeb’s special friend whose parents had brought her from North Carolina, released a fifteenth light blue balloon. Our balloons represented the years Jeb had lived. Hers represented a future that had been so tragically cut short. Then, we all made our way to the fellowship hall of the church and shared a meal.
All of us.
And we had leftovers.
This Memorial Day weekend, we plan to scatter his ashes at the Creation Museum. The gardens at the museum were Jeb’s favorite place on this earth. I think returning his ashes to the earth in his favorite place will be another step toward closure for this chapter of our lives. As I am writing this, we are still coping with the uncertainty of an open police investigation and the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what happened, but we remain certain that Jeb is no longer in this world.
This is so wrong.
It’s wrong that Jeb is not in this world anymore. It’s wrong that the world is a darker place. Yet, as Jeb told Gary when his wife died last year, “God is still good, even when the situation sucks.”
I believe that God is good and that He loves us. My faith has not wavered even though my heart aches with missing our son.
While we lost a family member and our nuclear family got smaller, we gained a much larger family in community bound by the love of Christ. I have put off writing this for many reasons but I didn’t want to put it off any longer because I wanted to thank everyone who has prayed for our family since April 29. I cannot thank you enough for all of the good thoughts and prayers which have surely sustained us, the delicious meals, the donations made in Jeb’s name to various ministries, the cards, the emails, and everything else. Everyone has just been so kind and it has meant so much to us. You have no idea.
To those who have loved our son as we have loved him, we are mourning with you. Like you, we are comforted by the promise of Christ (Matthew 5:4). We are also thankful to a God who works all things for good to those who love Him and work according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Christ assured us that in this life we would have trouble but in Him we would have peace (John 16:33).
I’ve linked several articles below that have been written about Jeb and about the incident if you’d like to read more.