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Friday, June 17, 2016

A Family's Peace Broken and their Lives Shattered Forever...

A smile that could light up the world...
Peace, tranquility, joy, love, contentment; just some of the emotions that may have filled the hearts of the Graves family, as they sat on the beach at Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort last Tuesday night, while their 2-year-old son, Lane, waded in about a foot of water nearby.

According to witnesses, it was movie night at the resort and Disney's Zootopia was playing. Families were spread out throughout the beach and hotel property; some roasting marshmallows and conversing, while others lounged back and watched the film, as kids ran around, without a care in the world.  And, why would they?

They felt safe.  They were on vacation in beautiful and fantastical surroundings, encircled by their parents, other adults and children in the self-advertised, "happiest place on earth." The night had fallen.  The waters were calm.  Serenity filled the air.

And then, in an instant, before Matt Graves was able to react, an alligator jumped out of the water and snatched his son from the edge of the beach.

The father, apparently just a few feet away, jumped frantically into the water in an attempt to wrestle the boy from the gator's jaws but his attempts were futile.  The large reptile dove into the murky waters of the man-made lake, slipped from the father's grasp, cutting his hands in the process, and disappeared without a trace into the darkness.

As a father of an eight-year-old son, who not long ago was a rambunctious two-year-old that liked to play near the edge of the water during our vacations in Sanibel Beach, I couldn't imagine the horror and despair that Matt Graves felt.  The feelings of shock, desperation and helplessness that may have consumed him, his wife, Melissa, and their 4-year-old daughter, as they stood by the shore, moments after their boy disappeared.

It is a heart-wrenching thought that I haven't been able to shake for the past couple of days.  It's one that, I'm sure, will haunt the Graves forever.

Seeing the photograph of that angelic-looking little boy with a big smile and gorgeous blue eyes; full of hope and happiness, breaks my heart.  It actually brought tears to my eyes as I sat at my keyboard writing this blog today.

It was three days into the Graves family vacation and five days before Fathers' Day; a Father's Day that may feel like pure agony for him this year.

Another boy in same spot minutes before... 
Lane's body was recovered about eighteen hours later, in six-feet deep waters, about ten to fifteen yards from where he was taken by the predator.

Orange County Sheriff, Jerry Demings, and a Catholic priest delivered the tragic news after the body was found.  The Sheriff said that the boy's corpse, while suffering traumatic injuries, appeared intact.

"The family was distraught but also, I believe, relieved that we were able to find their son," he said.

In a statement to the press on Thursday, the family wrote, "Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our son.  We are devastated and ask for privacy during this extremely difficult time."

While overshadowed by the massacre in Orlando that ended the lives of forty-nine victims, just a few miles away, the Graves' story resonates with many parents like me.  It is a sad reminder of how fleeting life is and how it can change at a moment's notice.

At work, a few of us with younger children held an extensive conversation on the tragedy.  A co-worker admitted to having been to the beach at a Disney property at night to watch fireworks and letting her kids play near the water; never imagining that danger could lurk in the dark.    

Some have questioned the parents.  Where were they?  Why weren't they watching their son closely? Someone has to be responsible.  Someone always gets blamed.

Yet, another mother from Massachusetts, whose three-year-old son was playing in the same area that Lane was attacked only 45 minutes earlier, says it's unfair.  Jennifer Venditti Roye told People Magazine that she went up to her room because her son was tired. Still, she chose to let her son near and in the edge of the water to take pictures, "I consider myself a conscientious parent and I allowed my child to do that same thing right before the incident, never thinking that an alligator might be in that central area."

The entire town of Elkhorn, Nebraska, near Omaha, where the family is from is in mourning.  Friends and family are distraught, including members of the parish community of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where the little girl goes to school and the Graves attend.

They have been praying rosaries for God to give the family solace and consolation since news broke.

After the fact, Disney closed all its beaches and on Friday, started putting up barriers around the water.  

But, it was too late for the Graves, whose only warning was a sign that stated, "No swimming," and, too late for Lane; no more peace, no more joy, no more contentment; at least, for now.  They are left picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

This morning at Mass, I thought of the family in prayer, as my mind briefly drifted to the horrific episode of the father diving into the water and trying in futility to save his son, putting myself in Matt Graves place, as I have done dozens of times, only to come back to the reality of the liturgy during the Agnus Dei, as the congregation recited, "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.  Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.  Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us (them) peace."  How apropos, I thought.

May the Lord have mercy on the Graves, bring them comfort and peace again and strengthen their faith to help them through this difficult and trying time...

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