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