Those who know me well, know that I love Christmas. I. Love. Christmas. I love beautiful nativities, stunning Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, going on sleigh rides, and seeing all the glitter and sparkle… all things Christmas. Except… the date. Christmas day, December 25th, is close to another date, December 28th, and that day is a very sad day for our family. (Terry, don’t read this. Some of the rest of you shouldn’t read it, either. It’s going to be hard to get through. My tears are flowing as I write.)
You see, December 28th is a day of loss and grief for our family and friends. Our family has been touched by child abuse. (Maybe “slammed” is a better word.) Some of you know that all of our five children are adopted. All came to be our children via the state child welfare system. All were foster children at one time, for reasons including abuse and neglect. Valerie, our youngest, lost her younger brother at the hand of their birth father when she was four years old. She entered foster care (and our home) at that time, and after four years in care, she was adopted at age eight.
This is our story. It’s a hard story to tell, but tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Maxwell’s death, and I think it’s time to tell it out loud from my perspective as his grandma and the adoptive mother of both his older sister and his mother.
Valerie’s brother’s name is Maxwell. He was a delightful child, cute as can be – fun, engaging, loving, and loved. And he was a victim of child abuse. At the age of two, he was killed by his birth father. Although family tried to intervene, although calls were made, questions were asked, reports were made, and a DCFS case was opened, his birth father still had legal rights to visit. The man did not go out and buy a gun and shoot Max; he apparently became angry during the night and pushed a tiny little boy into a wall with enough force to give him brain damage equal to Shaken Baby Syndrome. One push that ended his life after what we perceive to be history of lesser pushes, bumps, bruises and battery.
Max was born to our then youngest daughter, a single mother involved in a relationship we didn’t approve of in any way. In fact, we went to great lengths to try to end it, including having her get a legal order of protection when he put her in the hospital. It was hard to keep them apart, and it seemed that other professionals were less invested than we were in doing so. Both parents were in their 20’s, adults in the eyes of the law and both had legal rights. Max’s mother did many things right, but she could not pull way from the kids’ birth father, even when he was fully involved in a subsequent relationship and had other children. She fit into patterns that are very consistent with a history of domestic violence.
When Max was killed, we’d already moved to Jacksonville and our hope had been that he and his family would move up here, too. Both kids were deaf, and we believed that they needed to be near Illinois School for the Deaf. We thought that if we moved up here, they’d have the support they needed to make the move. Our move, leaving our home and town of 25 years, gave me the impetus to be able to finally open my own Bed & Breakfast. We hoped it would draw them this way, too. Max, Val and their mom visited us for Christmas early in the week, then returned to their home. I can still hear, in my mind, the pain in my son’s voice when he called late that week to say that Max was gone. He’d passed away during the night. The pain was great for all of us.
Often following visits, I encouraged Max’s mom to take him to the doctor due to illness or unexplained injuries. In fact, I was with his mom twice when she took Max to the hospital following visits with his birth father. The kids’ pediatrician, never once said, “I need to report this.” or “These injuries are unusual. You need to stay away from this man.” Never once did she do her job for Maxwell as a mandated reporter. We have list of doctor contact dates including one early in the week he passed away. When testifying in court, I stated that one of my greatest challenges was that we were holding a young mother accountable for Maxwell’s injuries and death, but not the doctor she’d taken him to so many times. Out of the blue one day, my son, still living in our old home area, called to say that he thought the doctor was going to be charged. I asked how he knew. He said that Max’s picture was on the news again and the indication was that a doctor was being investigated. We believe now that when directly asked by DCFS, she stated that she had no concerns. As a result of Max’s death, his pediatrician did lose her license to practice – for only one year. That’s hard for me to wrap my mind around. We lost our grandson. As a result, she lost her livelihood for one year. My only hope is that Max’s death and the subsequent loss of license had an impact on her consideration toward future mandated reporting and supporting families in crisis.
When grieving, anniversary days are often hard – death dates, birth dates, missed holidays and other significant events. This 10-year anniversary is hitting me especially hard. We’re coming up on our 10th anniversary with Blessings on State Bed & Breakfast. It is my dream come true, but it had a challenging beginning. Imagine trying to get a new business off the ground when your heart is breaking and you can’t control your tears. My mind was on losing Maxwell; it was not on getting set up to do business. I remember the day my buddy said, “I’m just going to move all these lamps off your dining room table. You can put them wherever you want them later, but I’m getting them out of here.” Council members volunteered to do my DCFS work for me. Many donated to a fund for children at Illinois School for the Deaf on our behalf. I tried to squirm out of having an Illinois College intern, but she was a great help. Thankfully, I had a lot of help and support in those early days. I just held on to the Lord and leaned on my friends and family during some very dark days.
That brings us to today. Christmas time. A time of joy and laughter. A time to celebrate Jesus’ birth. And an anniversary of a small child’s death. It’s a big one. 10 years. Imagine visiting a snowy grave with a 14-year-old surviving sister. 14 years old. A sister who lovingly places the Christmas gift she purchased, a red “muscle” Hot Wheels car, among other cars placed in days past. Think about standing behind this sweet girl as she carefully clears away the snowy leaves and other debris to uncover other treasures left to honor him.
Valerie’s time with Max was so limited that we’re never sure how much she actually remembers him. Losing someone is never easy. Losing a child or grandchild is a really significant event. Losing someone at holiday time seems especially hard, but I can’t wrap my mind around how hard it must be to be a child and lose your younger sibling at such a young age.
We have strong faith that we will see Max again in Heaven. I can’t imagine where we would be without that blessed hope. I believe that the Lord took Max Home now to keep him from what may have been a longer life of abuse. I have to redirect my thoughts to the joy of eternity with the Lord rather than the loss and grief I feel because Max is no longer with us. How do you explain it to his four-year-old sister? We spoke to her of Heaven and directed her attention toward the clouds. That actually backfired on me when we had taken off on a flight to Texas. Because she was five years old, I thought she was just excited about flying. However, as we got up into the clouds she looked me straight in the eyes and with child-like faith asked, “When do we get to see Maxwell?” We were flying into the clouds and she was going to see him. There were tears shed in that moment, too. I shared this story and other things Val said in a book we wrote called, “Why Did We Have to Say Goodbye? Valerie’s Story.” We have copies for sale, both hard cover and paperback. It may be of benefit if you know a family at risk or one that has experienced child abuse.
Though I’m far from being a fan of contemporary Christian music, I’ll never forget the lyrics to a song that was sung in Max’s funeral. I’d probably never heard of Casting Crowns before that day, but the Lord used those lyrics to speak to me then, repeated it when the assistant pastor sang it as a special at Westfair a few weeks later, and it continues to speak to me to this day. Tears dripped off my chin as they sang that song. It still brings back the intense grief that had a hold on me and serves as a reminder that I can’t praise the Lord only when things are going my way. I have to praise him when I’m in the midst of the storm, too.
Maxwell Owen Eyer, age two, died at 12:50 a.m., on Friday, December 28, 2007. That’s our Max. This is a big anniversary year. Even through my tears I want to celebrate Max’s life. He brought love and joy into many lives and I know that we can look forward to seeing him again one day. Valerie and I have been invited to share our story at Prevent Child Abuse events. We do that to honor Maxwell’s memory and to do our part to prevent the abuse and neglect of other children.
I live in a town that takes animal abuse seriously. Let’s do the same for child abuse. Why do we see more tear-jerking appeals on TV to protect animals than we do to protect our children and youth? Is there someone you can’t seem to get through to? Do you need to make a call? If you believe a child is in imminent danger, please call 911. If you believe you need to report child abuse or neglect, the number to call is 1-800-4-A-Child, 1-800-422-4453. You may save the life of a child. Do it for that child.
Do it to honor our Max.
About Blessings on State Bed & Breakfast
Experience a stay in our award-winning Bed & Breakfast located in a magnificently restored 130-year-old mansion in the heart of the historic district. Pampered luxury is our goal, to delight both business and leisure travelers. We offer two upscale guest suites, each with private sitting rooms and private baths. We provide multi-course gourmet breakfasts, 24/7 family-friendly hot and cold beverages and snacks, and cookies and milk at bedtime. Wi-Fi is available throughout our home and each suite has a digital satellite TV and all-season fireplace. We are located just steps away from Illinois College, the Governor Duncan Mansion and Illinois School for the Deaf and our neighborhood is highlighted on one of Jacksonville’s historic walking tours. Escape the standard hotel room and enjoy your own private suite in the finest Jacksonville area lodging.