\I Lost My Son at Columbine
by Doreen Tomlin as told to Sherri Langton

A siren shrieks in the distance. I stop, detach from the present, and instantly relive an afternoon when all I heard were sirens near our Littleton, Colorado, home. Once again I'm riding with my husband, John, trying to process news reports over the car radio "Shootings?bombs?Columbine High School?Parents, pick up your kids at Leawood Elementary." Leawood, a school about three blocks from Columbine, was the designated meeting place for the students and their parents.

But our car crawls. The street in front of Columbine is jammed with ambulances and police cars. Other parents have abandoned their vehicles and are running through Clement Park toward the school. Inwardly I'm running, too. I must find our oldest son, John, 16, a sophomore at Columbine. Eighteen hundred kids, I say to myself. But I?ll find him.

John loved Chevy trucks, the Green Bay Packers, and country music. But he also loved Jesus, whom he'd asked into his heart as a young child back in Wisconsin, where we lived for the first 12 years of his life. Our move from Wisconsin to Littleton in November 1994, was difficult for John; he was lonely for his friends back home. In my Moms in Touch prayer group, I asked God to help him overcome his loneliness and find some friends.

Three-and-a-half years later, God answered that prayer. John met Michelle, a strong Christian, at his youth group at Riverside Baptist South Church. He also made friends with Brandon, with whom he worked at Arapahoe Acres Nursery and Garden Center. Between John's part-time job and time spent with Michelle and Brandon, we didn't see much of him ? but we knew he was happy.

Then, in the summer of 1998, our family joined a team of 22 on a short-term missions trip to build houses in Juarez, Mexico. Looking at all the flimsy shacks and massive poverty, John said, "Mom, can you believe all this?"

After that trip, John recommitted his life to Christ at a youth group meeting at Riverside, and his spiritual life blossomed. He knew he wanted to serve God in some way. He invited people from work to go to youth group and prayed regularly over the phone with Michelle. He enjoyed reading his Bible daily.

On April 20, John hopped into his Chevy pickup and headed for school around 7 A.M. I saw my husband off to work and our daughter, Ashley, 11, off to Bear Creek Elementary. I stayed behind to homeschool our younger son, Patrick, now 15, who was thinking of attending Columbine the following fall. I'd grown to love my quiet routine as wife and stay-at-home mom.

But I quickly forgot that quiet routine. My husband left work as soon as he heard the news, and together we headed toward the school. With sirens blaring in the background and reporters pacing the halls, my husband and I entered the panic at Leawood. News trickled in over parents? cell phones about the shootings. SWAT teams had cautiously converged on Columbine and were helping kids escape.

Many were streaming out of the building, but not nearly the number we knew attended. Some kids must have been hiding in the school, but how many? Where?

At first we heard nothing about injuries, but the sirens told another story. We later learned a number of injured students had been taken to area hospitals. Busloads of Columbine kids arrived at Leawood and walked across the stage in the school gymnasium before seated parents. Their names were called out ? but not John's. I scanned the list of students posted in the front hall ? but John's name wasn't there.

I can?t believe this is happening, I thought. Tearful reunions sprouted around me, and all I could do was envy the other families. Why can't that be us?, I thought, Where is he?

My mind scrolled through all the possible places John could be: He's probably hiding in the school.... Maybe he found his truck and he's waiting for us at home.... Maybe he?s injured and already at a hospital.

Mothers from my Moms in Touch group and two pastors from our church, Foothills Bible, had shown up to be with us and pray. Michelle's mother, Debbie, who had come over to watch Patrick while we were at Leawood, had loaned us her cell phone. A quick call to her revealed that while Ashley had arrived home safely from Bear Creek, John hadn't returned with the truck. Reports began circulating that some kids had been killed. Yet, there was no call from a hospital, no name on a list. By 4 P.M., a strange resignation settled over me. Fewer teens were being bussed in and fewer parents milled the halls at Leawood. I?d stopped lurching from my chair. With no sign of my son, the inevitable caved in on me. John didn?t make it.

I didn't share my fears with my husband, but he had his own. As the afternoon wore on, he told me, "I just hope they don't ask us to go into another room.?

But they did. Around 8 P.M. the dozen or so of us remaining at Leawood were ushered into the science lab. There the Jefferson County sheriff met with us and explained that most of the kids who had died were in the library.

I turned to another mother and said, "John always went to the library."

My head spun and the sheriff's voice faded to a near whisper. I'm going to faint, I thought.

"I've got to go home," I quickly told my husband, then headed for the car.

At home, I announced to those waiting, "I think John's dead." I tried to relax in the shower and let the water rinse away the day's violence. Two months before, I'd told someone I could never survive the loss of a child. Now I believe God had been preparing me for the very thing I feared. Without knowing how our family would be altered forever, I prayed, tears running down my face, "Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit to overflowing."

Wednesday, my husband and I continued to live in quiet resignation. We started making funeral arrangements despite no final word from authorities. Then, late Thursday afternoon, a victim's advocate met with my husband and me and confirmed John's death. He had been brutally shot in the library.

The finality of the news made my husband convulse in sobs. I wept as well, yet my resignation had reduced some of the pain. Our son who had wanted to join the Army after high school and had wanted to serve God would never see graduation. Together we'd rejoiced over John's birth; together we'd raised him in a godly home; now together we'd cling to God and let him go.

Part of the letting go came Thursday evening when we visited John's truck, still in its space in Clement Park. I sat in it, slowly absorbing John?s death. Since I couldn't be near my son, I could be near two prized items he'd left in his car that morning: his Bible and his Packers jacket.

Another part of letting go was our decision to hold a memorial service for John that Friday at our Littleton church, and respect his wishes to be buried in Wisconsin. Our church family surrounded us at the service as they'd done throughout the past few days. TV cameras lined the sides of the sanctuary, waiting to film the first Columbine funeral. But my attention riveted on John's picture, projected on a big screen. Seeing his broad grin and blond hair plunged a knife into my heart. As John's friends nervously waited to read their tributes, I begged silently, God, please get me through this.

Near the beginning of the service during the congregational singing, the only voice I focused on was my own. I longed to keep singing. Gradually, as I sang, my son's picture faded and heaven filled my thoughts. John was with God now, free from this violent, wicked world. I could not wish him back.

After the service, the media asked to interview me on camera, and I agreed to it. Normally I avoid the spotlight, but God freed me from anxiety before a TV audience. I can't recall what I said to the reporter, but I know my composure came out of the overflow of praise.

On Sunday, my husband and I sat with other Columbine victims' families at the public memorial near the school. I thrilled to hear the Bible?s truths proclaimed to thousands, but so much at the service wrenched me: the bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" ? John liked bagpipes; the dove released when Governor Owens read his name; blue and silver balloons freed to the sky; jets soaring overhead. My heart ached; I missed my son.

The words of Vice President Gore's speech that afternoon described me well: Despite spring on the calendar, death had brought a cold winter in my heart. Each time the doorbell rang, I pictured myself opening the door and someone shooting me. Though I rejoiced at the stories I'd been hearing about people accepting Christ, I was torn between that and wanting my son back. I felt divided: Half of me appreciated the flood of cards and notes, and half of me wanted to pitch them in the garbage.

I awoke the following Wednesday in my mother's house in Wisconsin, but couldn't drag myself out of bed. In a few hours we'd attend the last service for our son. More eulogies, more memories, more tears. "God," I whispered, "I can't do one more thing. You're literally going to have to get me going. I cannot do this in my own strength."

My eyes rested on a nativity scene, still sitting on the dresser from Christmas. Mary. For the first time I saw this woman as a mother who lost her son through death and even witnessed his brutal execution ? the thorns, the nails. "God," I wept, "how did Mary do it?"

At that moment, the same Spirit who long ago strengthened Mary, the mother of Jesus, poured strength into me. I rose, dressed, and later that morning said good-bye to John.

We returned home to a routine altered by a highly publicized death. The phone rang constantly: A news program requested a different picture of John; a church in another state asked my husband and me to come speak. I didn't like this attention; I wanted my quiet life back.

Every day stacks of cards, letters, and gifts arrived from people all over the nation. John's truck transformed into a shrine of flowers and notes; I could hardly see its rust spots and gold paint. Yet the public?s wonderful outpouring of sympathy couldn't fill the emptiness with which I wrestled. For two weeks after John's death, I sat in his room with everything just as it had been the morning of April 20: Green Bay Packers and Harley Davidson posters; a Colorado Rockies pendant; a framed picture of a Corvette convertible; a cowboy hat; model cars; sunglasses; and a watch. I left these but held and rocked my son's clothes, wanting him back. Am I going crazy?

My sister in Wisconsin had sent a hymnal home with me. Some days I let it lay on the table, untouched. But on the days my grief pushed me to flip through the pages, the words of its well-loved hymns comforted me.

My husband and I refused to follow the news of the Columbine shootings, but we learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had committed the murders. I didn't know them or their parents, but I was saddened that evil had such a grip on them. I prayed for their families.

We also learned that Nicole Nowlen, a Columbine student who survived nine gunshot wounds, had been hiding under a library table with John that day. She told us they could see the killers' legs and hear their voices, but that John remained totally calm. God has brought me special comfort in knowing he strengthened my son in his last moments on earth.

Since the night of April 20, I've experienced God's comfort in a deeper way than ever before. He hasn't taken away the pain of grieving, but has become my partner in it.

Though I haven't questioned God why John was killed, though I harbor no bitterness toward the killers, I know I face a long road ahead. I won't put myself in a mold. How will I feel when John isn't here to open birthday presents or hang ornaments on the Christmas tree? Will I someday be filled with anger instead of memories when I hear a siren? I don't know. But I do know that God will give me what I need in abundant measure.