August 5, 1998 started out like any other day. It wasn’t.
Three hundred fifty miles away from where I lived (and live) in Kentucky, my mom, Juanita Duncan, was starting her morning normally. She had awakened, pulled on her robe, and made her way to the kitchen to make coffee and wait for my dad, Arthur, to awaken. With the coffee started, she glanced out the kitchen window across the farm on which she had lived for most of her adult life. Dawn was breaking.
As she sat down to have her first cup of coffee, she heard the sound of vehicle in the driveway and assumed it was a neighbor, someone who worked for Dad, or maybe my sister, Carolyn Aden, making an earlier-than-usual morning visit. When she heard the expected knock at the door, she opened it to see Terrell Patterson, an acquaintance just slightly younger than I am. Terrell’s wife, Joyce, worked in the Soil Conservation office. She and my dad had become acquainted after he was elected President of the local Soil Conversation District and later of the Missouri Soil Conversation Districts.
“I need to talk to Arthur,” Terrell told her.
“He’s just getting up, Terrell. Come in and have a cup of coffee and I’ll tell him you’re here.”
“No, just tell him I need to talk to him out here for a minute.”
Having someone come to the house to talk to Dad was not unusual. Given his many interests and involvements in the community plus his willingness to listen to other people’s troubles and help them find a solution, folks often showed up.
It was a little before 7:00 a.m. when Mom told Dad that Terrell was outside and wanted to talk to him. When Dad came to the door, he, as had Mom, invited Terrell inside. Terrell again declined saying, “I just need to talk to you out here for a minute.”
A few minutes later, three hundred fifty miles from the carport where Dad had gone to speak with Terrell, Donna and I were finishing our breakfast when the phone rang. My sister was calling from our parents’ home. Before I heard her voice, my mind took in the background noise. There was the sound of too many voices for an early morning. Over all the noise, I could hear my mom crying. The dawn of a new day was about to be shattered.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Carolyn spat out the words, “Dad’s been shot!”
It’s amazing how much can go through one’s mind in a matter of seconds. My dad, in spite of all his goodness, had been involved in a multi-year affair with a local woman. The affair had wrought havoc in all our lives. Had the woman gotten mad and shot him on one of his overnights with her? Had one of her children? Was there another upset lover who had done the shooting?
“Is he . . . ? I managed to get out.
“No, he’s alive but it’s bad. He’s lying at the end of the carport. He’s been shot in the stomach. It doesn’t look good.” She went on to tell me that the Sheriff, a neighbor was there and that he had radioed for the emergency squad and had a helicopter on the way from Cape Girardeau, a small city seventy miles away. I had served as a volunteer EMT in our community for almost ten years. I knew what a gunshot to the stomach meant. A victim on the ground and seventy miles from a hospital had little chance of survival. Carolyn knew this, too.
As Carolyn and Mom waited for the helicopter, Donna and I hurried to pack clothes, including funeral clothes. I ran by the church office to tell my secretary what had happened. I called our chairman of deacons. We headed toward Missouri, knowing that at any time our cell phone would ring with the expected news.
The phone did ring. Carolyn reported that Dad had survived the flight to the hospital and was in surgery.
Dad had been able to tell the Sheriff that Terrell was the shooter. Police throughout the area were notified. Before they could apprehend Terrell, he had driven back to New Madrid, gone to the home of his wife, from whom he was separated, and shot her numerous times, killing her instantly.
When Donna and I arrived at Southeast Missouri Hospital in Cape Girardeau, eight hours after the shooting, Dad was out of surgery. His doctor was cautiously optimistic.
Within an hour of our arriving at the hospital, Dad’s condition worsened. His blood pressure was dropping. The doctor, fearing there was a bleeder, rushed him back to surgery. The hospital staff began those actions which pastors know happen only when the worst is anticipated. Coffee and pastries were brought into the waiting room for us. The hospital chaplain came and spent time with us. While some of the family was moved by the kindness of the staff, I knew their kindness was an act of caring for a family whose loved one would not survive.
The one bullet that entered Dad’s abdomen perforated his intestines in four places, destroyed one kidney, and passed through the spinal column, coming to rest right beside it. Dad survived the night. We were even able to talk with him the next day. True to his character, he had instructions for Carolyn and me. We were to go to the funeral visitation for Terrell’s wife Joyce, to be his representatives. By this time, I had become to wonder if there had been something besides a work relationship between Joyce and him. He assured us there was nothing.
The following day, Dad slipped into a coma and for the next thirty days he teetered between life and death. Numerous times, we contemplated pulling life support. That we didn’t was the result of a tenacious doctor who kept saying, “It’s not time to do that yet.”
Dad remained in the hospital for forty-five days and spent another forty-five in rehab. He lost the one kidney and was left with partial paralysis of his right hip and leg. With the aid of crutches, he learned to walk, though the manner of his walk brought immense pain and sadness to those of us who were used to seeing this strong, six foot one inch man move with grace.
Three months after the shooting, I walked alongside his wheelchair as a nurse pushed him toward the door that led to the car in which I would drive him home. A few feet from the door, Dad pulled the locks on the wheelchair and announced that he was “walking out of this hospital.” The nurse tried to argue, but she was up against an opponent with a much stronger will than hers.
The joy of Dad’s homecoming was marred by the changed reality of his life. So much had been lost and would never be recovered. So many things he had done were now beyond possibility. Our lives, not merely the dawn of August 5, had been shattered.
Late on the night of the shooting, Terrell Patterson was arrested in Arkansas where he had holed up for the night. Months later, I would sit with my family, Joyce Patterson’s family, and Terrell’s family in a Kennett, Missouri, courtroom for the trial. Terrell was convicted and sentenced to life for the assault with intent to kill of my father and to life without parole for the killing of his wife.
One year later, I returned to Missouri to accompany my parents to an appeal hearing for Terrell. It was to be his last appeal. It took place in the same courtroom as had the trial. At the hearing, Terrell, who had not testified at the original trial, took the stand. It was there that we heard his story. He and his wife had been separated for months, the separation caused in part by his drinking and drug use. He had begged her to let him come home. On the night before the shootings, he drank heavily and used drugs. During the night he stated that he had tried to kill himself, putting gun to his head, but pulling it away just as he pulled the trigger. Police investigations had revealed that a gun had been fired into the ceiling of the motel room where he was staying. He then said, “That morning I knew I had to get things sorted out and I knew that Arthur could help me do that. I went to his home to talk and get advice; but as I turned into the driveway, in my mind, he became the problem.” Terrell had no conversation with Dad that morning. When Dad stepped outside, Terrell pulled his gun from the back of his belt and shot. He had intended it to be a headshot. By Dad’s quick reaction, he was able to pull Terrell’s hands down so that the bullet entered his abdomen rather than his head. As Terrell spoke that day in court, I could see and hear his remorse.
As we left the hearing, I stopped to buy gasoline. When I got back in the car, Dad said, “Drive back to the Sheriff’s office. I want to see Terrell. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I knew better than to argue with Dad.
When Dad told the Sheriff that he wanted to see to Terrell, the Sheriff asked, “Arthur, why do you want to see him?”
“Well, I’m not here to kill him. I just want to talk to him.”
We were ushered into the Sheriff’s private office. A few minutes later, the Sheriff opened the door and allowed Terrell to enter the office unescorted. That probably was not good police work, but it was good work of another kind.
Terrell looked anxious as he entered. In the next moment, I saw my Dad stand taller than I had ever seen him. Dad pushed himself up from the chair in which he sat. Placing his left hand on the desk to steady himself, he reached out his right hand to Terrell. Terrell slowly extended his hand.
“Terrell,” Dad said, “I hate what you’ve done to me, but I need you to know that I don’t hate you. I forgive you and I hope that your life can be as good as possible.” Three grown men—a shooter, his victim, and a son stood, embraced, and wept.
Dad lived another eight years. He chose to live life as it was and not to dwell on the might-have-beens. He broke off the affair and he and my Mom experienced good years together. Forgiveness set him free. It was real forgiveness—forgiveness that was repeated seventy times seven.
Through an act of forgiveness, a shattered dawn gave way to the brilliant light of new day.