Here’s a name to keep in mind this Father’s Day: Thomas Vander Woude.
On September 8, 2008, Tom, a devout Christian and Vietnam veteran, was working on his farm with the youngest of his seven sons. Joseph (“Josie,” as his family called him) was 20 years old and he had Down syndrome. All of Tom’s other sons had moved away, but he still had Josie at home. The two were inseparable. They did everything together.
But tragedy struck on this fateful afternoon. Josie walked across the yard, stepped on the cover of a septic tank, the cover broke, and he fell in. The tank was about eight feet deep, a few feet wide, and it was almost completely filled with sewage. Tom immediately rushed over and tried to pull his panicking son out of the hole. But Josie was too heavy and his hands were slippery. While his wife called 911, Tom decided to take drastic action. He jumped into the dark, filthy, sewage-clogged tank with his son.
At some point, Tom must have realized that he wasn’t going to be able to lift his son out. The two of them would have to wait there, treading the sludge, until help arrived. But that could take several minutes, or longer, and Josie might suffocate or drown in the meantime. So Tom submerged himself in the sewage, pushed his son up from below, and, using his body, kept his son’s head above the fluid until rescue workers arrived. By the time help came, Tom was dead. Josie survived.
Let us not downplay Tom’s heroism by chalking it up to “parental instinct.” There is no such instinct. 60 million abortions in America ought to drive that point home. Not every parent would give up their life for their child. Indeed, some demand exactly the reverse sacrifice. This was not an instinct, it was not an impulse, it was a choice. Tom chose his son’s life over his own.
As fathers, most of us will never be faced with a situation quite so dramatic as this. Yet we we are given the chance, every day, in small ways, to choose ourselves or our families. We would all like to think of ourselves as heroes like Tom Vander Woude. We like to imagine ourselves as the sort of men who would jump into that tank and embrace an agonizing, horrific death for the sake of our wives or our children. But it takes practice to be that sort of man. It takes conditioning. It takes love -- not the emotion of love, not just affection, but the constant, purposeful, sometimes painful, often inconvenient, choice of love. The act of love.
If Tom Vander Woude was acting according to any impulse, it was an impulse actively developed through years of loving service to his family. He was the sort of man who would make big sacrifices -- the ultimate sacrifice -- because he was the sort of man who made small sacrifices. So, even if we have no drowning son to save, even if there is no putrid, stinking pit for us to courageously dive into, we still have those little choices, those little sacrifices, those daily acts of selflessness to perform. Perhaps our humble gestures of love will not always be noticed, not always appreciated, but our families are still strengthened by them. And through them we are made into better men. The type of men who would jump into that hole, into that muck and filth, and give our very breath to the ones who we have spent our whole lives loving.