My junior year of high school was off to a great start. By the third day, I’d finally memorized my class schedule, my locker combination and most of my pep-squad routines. That morning I slipped on my new jeans and sandals, grabbed my books and pompoms, and kissed my mom goodbye. It was a 10-mile drive to school from our house in the country. As I got into my little brown car, I grabbed my seat belt, thinking, I never remember to wear this thing, but I may as well put it on now that I’m thinking about it.
As I came over a hill, I remembered I still needed to put lipstick on. I adjusted my rearview mirror for a quick application. As my eyes returned to the road, I caught a glimpse of something moving, then felt my car suddenly jolt. I had hit something. My initial thought was perhaps it was a farm animal. But I had a sinking feeling it was something much worse.
As I stopped the car and ran back to see what I had hit, my sinking feeling was confirmed. I stood trembling over the body of a curly-headed woman lying face down in the grass next to a mangled bicycle.
Without a cell phone, I looked down the road for someplace to call for an ambulance. I noticed only two houses in sight. I ran to the closest one and pounded on the door. When there was no response, I ran to my car and drove to the other house. I was relieved when an elderly man opened the door and quickly pointed me toward his phone. I called 911. Then, I called home and asked my mom to drive down the road until she saw me. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her anything else.
By the time I got back to the scene, another car had stopped, and a man was standing on the side of the road near the woman. He looked at my car and asked, “Did you hit her?” I responded through my tears of panic, “Yes sir, but it wasn’t a hit-and-run, I only left to go call an ambulance.” My mother arrived within a couple of minutes, and I tried to pull myself together as she ran toward me with her own tears of panic. As we waited for help, all I could think about was that the woman I had just hit was probably someone’s mother … someone’s daughter … someone’s wife.
When a paramedic finally arrived and examined the woman, he coldly explained we would have to call a funeral home because there was nothing he could do. I left the scene not even knowing who she was.
The next two hours were a blur. I remember collapsing on the living-room sofa, sobbing, then waking up later when a policeman knocked on the door, asking to question me. I kept thinking, This wreck was all my fault. I should have been the one killed, not her. Terrified of facing the woman’s family, I considered suicide more than once that afternoon.
Later that day, I received a phone call from a man who said he was a neighbor to Marjorie Jarstfer—the woman I had hit. The caller told me that Mrs. Jarstfer’s husband, Gary, was out of town. He said he and his pastor had driven to see Mr. Jarstfer, to tell him his wife had been killed in a car accident. My heart sank. The family now knew. I was sure they probably wanted me dead too.
The caller continued, “Shannon, I want you to know that Gary’s immediate response was, ‘How is the girl? Was she hurt?'” I couldn’t believe this man’s first response to such devastating news was concern for me. How could he even think of me, when I had just taken his wife from him?
I was even more stunned when the caller said Gary wanted me to come to his home the night before the funeral. I wanted to decline, but knew I couldn’t. I needed to meet him. But I was scared to death. When I went to see him, I got out of the car with my heart racing and more lumps in my throat than I could count.
As I entered the house, I looked down the entry corridor to see a big, burly middle-aged man coming toward me, not with animosity in his eyes, but with his arms opened wide. Gary Jarstfer scooped me up in the warmest embrace, and the tears that I had been fighting back began to flow freely onto his flannel shirt as his own tears flowed onto the top of my head. I couldn’t stop repeating, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Once we regained our composure, Gary introduced me to his pastor and two of his adult children. Then he took me by the hand over to a window seat and began to tell me things he wanted me to know about Marjorie’s life.
“My wife was such a godly woman, and we’ve served many years with Wycliffe Bible Translators. There was no limit to how much Marjorie loved the Lord,” Gary explained. “She had a very close, intimate walk with God, so much so that she’s actually been telling me for a while that she sensed the Lord would be calling her home soon. She lived every day as if it would be her last on Earth, and she never left this house on her morning ride without hugging and kissing me as if she might be saying goodbye for the last time. … “
I tried to wrap my brain around the idea that someone could be so close to God that she would know when her time on Earth was about to be up. Gary had my full attention as he continued, “Shannon, God was ready to take Marjorie home. Even though this has caught us all by surprise, it comes as no surprise to him. You may be wondering why God allowed this to happen to you, but I want you to look at it this way. He knew you would be strong enough to handle this, and that’s what I want you to do. You can’t let this ruin your life, Shannon. God wants to strengthen you through this. He wants to use you. As a matter of fact, I am passing Marjorie’s legacy of being a godly woman on to you. I want you to love Jesus without limits, just like Marjorie did. I want you to let him use you for his glory, Shannon.”
A few weeks later, Gary was told that he could likely sue my parents for more money than our insurance policy would cover, and yet he refused, saying, “What would be the purpose of adding to that family’s grief by making their lives more miserable?” The district attorney wanted to try me for involuntary manslaughter, but Gary insisted all charges be dismissed without a trial. He had a perfect opportunity to make me pay for what I’d done, yet he chose mercy.
I kept waiting for Gary to come to his senses and dish out the punishment I deserved. However, time proved me wrong. For weeks after the wreck, Gary called or dropped by where I worked just to see how I was doing.
Gary’s merciful actions—along with his challenging words to me that night before Marjorie’s funeral—would be my source of strength and comfort for years to come. God took this horrific event and turned it into something beautiful. As a result, I can say along with the apostle Paul, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4, NIV).
I gradually went from feeling “to blame” to feeling “chosen”: chosen to carry Marjorie’s legacy of being a godly woman who loves Jesus beyond measure. I wanted to be completely his, not just with my lips, but with my life.