Kisses in the belly of the beast

An excerpt from Happy Endings to Hard Days by Steve Van Winkle

In 1996, my oldest daughter, Madison, was two beautiful-and-indescribably-cute years old, and my youngest daughter, Baylee, was a squirmy six months old.

Yes, I spelled her name correctly. In a consequential moment of my absence, Cheryl was presented the paperwork for naming our second daughter and decided on a novel spelling of what I thought would be “Bailey’s” name: Baylee. No reason for this spelling, she said; she just liked the way it looked.


April of 1996 was also when the church I pastor graciously sent all four of us to Florida for a post-Easter getaway. Spending time with dear friends who had recently moved there and soaking in the sun while people back in Montana sloshed in the half-frozen mud and snow promised needed renewal, and we looked forward to seeing people who were like second parents to us.

On a particularly splendorous afternoon canopied by a crystal blue sky, my friend and I took Madison out on a small lake and spent the day catching sunfish. It was Mad’s first time fishing, and the start of what I hoped would be her following in my footsteps as an angling addict.

It’s hard to describe the thrill of watching thrill consume her face every time she saw a glimmering little bluegill hoisted out of the water or when she spotted a small alligator darting under the surface (she called them “adigaytows”). The fun exhausted her to the point of an afternoon nap on the boat; it’s still one of the best pictures we have of her.

To celebrate her day of fishing success, everyone met at a local restaurant that evening. When we returned to the apartment, we barely had time to sit down before our ears were assaulted by a sound from the kitchen usually heard only on animal channels. The snarling and determined viciousness jolted immediate alarm through my brain and I ran across the apartment to find my little daughter trying to get away from a very large and very angry Golden Retriever. She was leaning down to say hi to him while he was eating, and he attacked.

I picked Madison up and saw a ragged chunk of flesh missing from the center of her cheek, leaving nothing but an oozing, hole behind. It was red and fleshy and bleeding and hideous and accompanied by gashes on the top of her head and around her eye. Paralyzed by a sense of surrealism, all I could do was hold her face firmly to my chest until my wife snatched her and ran to the car.

My shirt, along with the kitchen, looked like a scene from a blood bath in The Godfather. The trip to the hospital was agonizingly slow; our friend drove while we sat in the back seat. Cheryl gently nudged Madison to sing, “You are My Sunshine” with her. I had my arm around Cheryl who was clutching Madison to her chest now.

Looking right at me, Mad sang softly and cautiously, but sang nonetheless. In the middle of one verse, she even managed to smile with me a couple of times. Trying to appear as though everything was fine, I forced one back; her bravery, to me, is still without explanation.

The hospital was as busy and bustling as you imagine most metro emergency rooms. With one look at Madison’s blood-crusted face, however, they swept us in and began urgently cleaning out the wound that consumed about a third of her tiny, once-perfect cheek. I couldn’t stay in the room. I felt like a terrible dad, but I couldn’t bear to see my little girl in such a mangled state and not be able to help.

Cheryl remained and calmed Madison with the high-tensile strength only mothers possess. I walked and prayed and prayed and walked. And wept.

When I finally came in, the plastic surgeon was there. He said there was little he could do except clean out the big wound and stitch up the four others he could see. As far as “good news” went, he assured us the long gash on top of Mad’s forehead that lurched down to her nose would recede into her hair as she grew, and that the smaller cuts would scar less now than they would have if this had happened later in life.

“Good news” about savagery is never good enough. It’s like someone whose lost a leg being consoled by someone assuring them that now is a much better time to lose one than a few years ago because today’s prostheses are so advanced. It’s good, but not really.

Finally, he said the gaping hole in her cheek would have to stay open. What’s hard to grasp in the moment is that a bite is unlike a cut in that a cut is simply a separation of tissue that can be rejoined with sutures. A bite, however, removes tissue and can’t be rejoined because it would deform the surrounding area, like cutting a hole in a sheet and sewing it together: It never lays right again.

For the foreseeable future, we would have to clean it out with peroxide every day and rebandage it until a cap filled in the gap. Then, he said something that helped me ease out of the swelling tide of anger and depression beginning to consume my thoughts. He told us we were in for a long haul and that the worse was yet to come, but he also said he was utterly amazed at what didn’t happen.

The hole went down to the tissue of the mouth, but didn’t penetrate it. The teeth grazed the medial nerve that controls the mouth (smile, etc.), but didn’t sever it. There were several bite marks around the left eye, but none that struck it. Most of all, the bite occurred only one inch from her jugular vein; it could easily have been on the throat, killing her nearly instantly, but wasn’t.

We went back to the apartment. Madison’s face looked like she had been beaten by angry chimps with lead pipes. Her entire two-year-old face was bruised; one eye was almost swollen shut. The tracks of stitches laid on her forehead and cheek and near her eye looked like macabre zippers on her flesh, and she was wound up with gauze on her head to keep the hole covered from infectious germs.

That thumbnail-sized hole was where I had kissed her little face so many nights as she slipped into sleep. It seemed that the kisses I planted there were now in the belly of a beast that had savagely maimed my little daughter to protect his dog food.

From questions of why to impulses of revenge to the self-flagellation of questioning how I could have prevented the entire thing, anger and depression were swelling again. Cheryl gathered Madison and Baylee to herself and went to bed. A couple nightmares from Mad followed and I don’t even remember if I went to sleep. Instead of lying down, I turned on the TV and tried to forget what happened.

Turns out, what happened to us had happened on the second anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The lead-in to “Nightline” was the famous, gut-wrenching picture of the fireman forlornly staring down at a little baby whose lifeless limbs dangled from her lifeless body.

I never knew what that baby’s name was until that night. Her name was Baylee. Yes, I spelled it correctly. At that moment, my perspective changed. Instead of wondering why God hadn’t prevented what had happened to my precious daughter, He helped me understand His mercy toward me in what He didn’t allow to happen.

In that chair, with the occasional cry from Madison being wakened by a nightmare, I thought how somewhere out there was a family whose Baylee was snatched away from them in a senseless, pointless plot hatched by two men no one had heard of to prove a point no one cared about. My Baylee, along with her sister, Madison, who was wounded but fine, were both safe in the arms of their mother.

Why was I spared when others had faced a darkness I didn’t want to acknowledge existed? This was a moment when I felt the weight of God’s grace in my life.

I had to preach that Sunday back home, after only a couple days off the plane from Florida. I spoke from Lamentations 3:19-26 and entitled the sermon “A Quiet Hope.” The thought was taken from how Jeremiah responded to the fall of his beloved city and the brutality that ensued. In the midst of witnessing unspeakable horrors as the Assyrians raped and enslaved an entire civilization, the prophet says something almost out of time, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.”

I told our people how Jeremiah’s ability to respond with humility at God’s devastating work amazed me. Reading it, I had come to see how, even in the tragedies of life, God’s mercies are inevitable.

The last lines of this handwritten sermon are these:

The events of the past week in our family have been screaming for an outlet. Jeremiah, perhaps better than most, could appreciate how delicately our lives are balanced by the grace of God. I suppose by ‘the delicate balance of life’ I refer to the limitless potential for daily disaster in our little worlds.

Every day there are countless opportunities for tragedy and yet 99 percent of them are never realized. Each day passes in relative anonymity and blurry familiarity. But, when the scale is tipped in one direction or another, things come into focus fast. Let me share with you what the Lord has shown me in our personal disaster: Tragedy can consume your life or cause your blessings to stand in stark relief.

I shared with them how God spared me by protecting my little girl from what could have been. Only then did I understand that even the sound of a little girl startled by nightmares was a reminder of how good He had been to me: I could have had nothing to listen to and no one to comfort.

With that, I think I also understood Jeremiah. Perhaps his praise for God’s unfailing mercies and compassion, in a moment when neither seemed present, was the result of the prophet grasping what could have been: They could have been captured, tortured and enslaved, and cast off by God.

Late in the night on the second anniversary of a bomb that killed someone else’s Baylee, mine, her sister, Madison, and my wife, Cheryl, were sleeping in the room behind me. In that chair, I rehearsed again the list of horrors the hospital surgeon marveled had not happened and I was seized by a simple idea. It was that, oftentimes, only in considering what could have been, are we humbled by how good God actually has been.

Steve Van Winkle has been a part of Fellowship Baptist Church in Bozeman, MT, since 1985. He became the church’s pastor in 1994. Steve and his wife Cheryl have three children. 

In addition to his pastoral ministry Steve is an adjunct faculty member of Boston Baptist College and has published numerous articles in national publications, contributed to several book projects, and served as Contributing Editor of The Baptist Preacher’s Journal. He is a graduate of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, MO, Louisiana Baptist University in Shreveport, LA, and he holds a MA in Ministry from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.