- Associated Press - Monday, January 22, 2018

OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) - Giving plenty of warmth and comfort through its lively patterns of pink and orange elephants, the little blanket bears the turquoise-embroidered name of its pint-sized owner, a lovely name that means “God’s Thoughtful Princess.”

At one time inseparable, the owner routinely clung to her blanket, its tags lightly brushing beneath her adorable button nose each time she drew it closer and lifted a thumb to her mouth. On Oct. 13, 2017, she made a brave decision to part from it, a gift she received when she was born from “Nonnie,” her grandmother Brenda Vermillion.

Having become a “big sister,” she deemed it fitting to give her blanket to “Gran” and “Papa” - her other grandparents, Brenda and Benny Andrews.

The very next day, 3-year-old Sadie Grace Andrews became an angel. Now the blanket she held so dearly brings comfort to her family.

“I do believe firmly Sadie knew,” said Sadie’s mother, Corrie Andrews, who noted how her daughter bagged up the blanket herself the morning before the tragedy that took her life. “Because, on earth, Sadie’s security was in that blanket.”

Exactly three months have passed since the Andrews’ daughter drowned in a grease trap in the picnic area at Bruster’s Real Ice Cream on East University Drive in Auburn. Video surveillance from the day Sadie died showed she had been playing with her siblings when she fell through the grease trap’s lid.

Minutes passed before her parents and employees were able to find her. Sadie was given CPR but was pronounced dead after being rushed to East Alabama Medical Center. The incident remains under investigation.

Enduring every parent and sibling’s worst nightmare, the Andrews family has faced a crossroads of severe bitterness and a more difficult path of personal growth through suffering. Their family is choosing the latter, drawing strength each day from their spiritual beliefs and a committed reliance on “hope.”

She had a knack for drawing smiles from others, always rushing to meet visitors at the front door of her family’s Auburn residence, all the while unleashing enthusiastic greetings to make everyone feel welcomed. She also was normally the first one to wake up, making way to her parents’ room as soon as the alarm clock’s light turned green to signal it was time to get out of bed.

“She used to come down and come in our bedroom, and when she didn’t talk quite as well, she would come down, and you’d kind of feel her looking at you,” recalled Sadie’s father, Tracy Andrews. “And you’d open your eyes, and she’d be right in your face looking sideways and say, ‘Daddy, I waked up.’”

A “ball of energy and the life of the party,” Sadie literally skipped everywhere, swinging her arms joyfully while leading the way. She was never without a song in her heart, embracing music and adoring songs like, “Jesus Loves Me,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

And Elvis’ “Hound Dog” and “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” especially when her daddy sang the tunes, a fun routine that emerged one night when Tracy wore a cardboard Burger King crown and offered to rock the children to sleep. He was, after all, the King of “Rock” ‘n’ Roll, and he was happy to sing using his best Elvis impression.

The routine delighted Sadie, who often made requests for a different Elvis song before her daddy could finish singing one, eventually resulting with a hybrid of lyrics.

“I would do crazy stuff,” Tracy said. “Instead of, ‘You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,’ I’d say, ‘You ain’t nothing but a teddy bear. You ain’t never caught a salmon, and you ain’t no friend of mine.’”

The Andrews family cherishes these and other precious memories, including the times Sadie served as baby “Liz” while joining her siblings to play “Pilgrim,” a game they created. These memories preserve their loved one, forever capturing her during the happiest of moments, like when Sadie saw the mountains of Tennessee and, later, the beach in Panama City for the very first time, months and weeks before she passed.

Such memories also strengthen the Andrews as they grieve over their loved one while embracing a resilient sense of hope, a word that came to Corrie following a prayer in 2016 and has since become greater magnified in meaning and absolutely dire to her family.

“I had never done this before, but I asked the Lord to give me a word for the year 2017, and that was on Dec. 31, 2016,” Corrie said. “And through Romans 15:13, the word was ‘hope.’ And I didn’t really think a whole lot about it - I even have it up in my kitchen window - until after Sadie passed away.”

A friend pointed out to her: “Corrie, do you realize God was already starting to prepare you?”

Completely enmeshed in a process of minimizing and de-cluttering, Corrie had taken down Sadie’s toddler bed about a month prior to the tragedy. Little Sadie was upgrading to a “big girl bed,” which is part of a trundle bed shared by her 6-year-old sister, Piper.

“And actually the morning of, it was starting to get cool, and so I’d just boxed up her summer clothes,” Corrie said. “And then that friend of mine also asked me, just shortly before Christmas, ‘Did you buy any Christmas presents for her?’ And knowing me, I’m very ‘Type A,’ and she knows me well, I typically have that done like by the summer. You know, I’m with six kids.

“And as I thought about it, we haven’t bought anything for her. And so, again, how God orchestrated that.”

The only thing Sadie wanted for “Wismas” was a double stroller she’d seen at Sam’s. After she passed, her parents bought the gift.

“And that was really hard,” Corrie said, tears filling her eyes. “But we took it to our church, because at that point they were asking the church if whoever wanted to give and donate toys to families in our community that cannot afford to give their children Christmas gifts. And they called it ‘Giving Hope.’”

Coincidentally, Hope is also the name of their children’s counselor, and someone anonymously sent them a book, “The One Year Book of Hope” by Nancy Guthrie. On Dec. 10, the day their church was going to give its annual Legacy offering to give to those in need, their pastor re-oriented the topic of his sermon to hope, rather than legacy.

These instances have encouraged the Andrews, offering uplifting reference points on days when it’s a struggle to get out of bed, get dressed and focus on the things at hand in the present. Thanksgiving was one of those days.

“It’s hard,” Corrie said. “Especially when you’re suffering, it’s really hard to find things to be thankful for. Because it’s easy to focus on what you’ve lost or what’s been taken away from you, or the pain.”

Though it hurts, focusing on being thankful for what they have been given has offered a helpful perspective, Corrie said. In fact, their children were already becoming well-versed about the value of this outlook, compliments of a VeggieTales song by Madame Blueberry and her Veggie friends, “The Thankfulness Song,” which notes, “Because a thankful heart is a happy heart!”

“To be honest with you, our kids did better than we did,” Corrie said while discussing how it was a struggle for their family to attend their church, Church of the Highlands, the Sunday after the tragedy. It was also a struggle to participate in their church’s “Serve Days,” which at the time was putting together Thanksgiving cards to accompany meals for community families in need.

While difficult, the Andrews’ choosing to go resulted with more encouragement.

“To see the creativity that God brought through our children at that point,” Corrie said. “Sabrina, who loves to draw, drew eight pumpkins, but she put one at the top and it was Sadie as an angel. And we don’t know who got those cards, but our girls specifically - now that they’re writing and they’re spelling - just said, ‘I love you and I’m praying for you.’ And to see that from our 7-year-old and our 6-year-old is huge, just to see the compassion and the heart to pray, the heart to give.”

The toughest times for Tracy have been when he’s alone. A supervisor for UPS, Tracy said working a lot helped occupy his mind, though it was certainly still tough. It becomes even tougher while driving long distances by himself.

While Corrie is generally the more social one, it was she who felt more inclined to withdraw after the tragedy. Tracy, however, encouraged others to stop by, a reaction of which Corrie is thankful.

“Our front doors were revolving doors for the first two weeks,” Tracy said, also noting how being around people, for him, has helped keep bitterness at bay. “‘Hey, if you want to come by, don’t call. Just come over here. Because we’re going to need you.’”

Choosing to be bitter would be easy, Tracy remarked. The fact that they have children who need them has influenced their choosing other ways to cope. If Sadie had been an only child, it would have been more difficult.

“I was thinking to myself, you never think about losing one of your children, but after we lost Sadie, I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve got five kids. And they’re still counting on me and us.’ So not that we can’t grieve, but for them, life has to kind of be the same. I mean, you don’t want them to feel like, ‘Well now that Sadie’s died, Mommy and Daddy’s not happy so they don’t spend time with us.’”

There are times when Corrie can’t bear to look at it. As their family has driven by, the children have expressed sentiments of their own: “Bruster’s is bad. We’ll never go to Bruster’s. If I have children, I would never go to Bruster’s. Why, Mommy, why did we go to Bruster’s?”

Consoling her children, Corrie has told them, “No, Bruster’s isn’t bad. God is sovereign. God’s in control, and He has a plan that’s bigger and better than anything we can even imagine.”

“Because they’re going to respond how we respond,” Corrie said. “And if I respond with, ‘Yeah, that place is horrible and that place is rotten,’ and ‘We hate this place,’ then they’re going to be bitter. But to say, ‘Babies, no. God has our days numbered, and we don’t get to choose when or how we’re going to die. We can choose where we’re going to go.

“And Sadie, she accomplished the purpose that God had for her here on earth. Even though I don’t understand that, and you don’t understand that, but she did what God had her to come here to do.’”

Prayer has helped console their family, bringing peace and helping to eliminate nightmares that plagued the dreams of 7-year-old Sabrina and 4-year-old Cason after the tragedy. The power of prayer also banished monsters who suddenly tried to dwell in Cason’s room.

In their own ways, the children are trying to understand, which has given rise to questions - “What’s heaven like?… Momma, why would God allow Satan to still live because he’s still evil and he hurts people?”

The deeper questions have come from the eldest sibling, Sabrina, who asked her mother during the first week following the tragedy, “Mommy, do you think Sadie will grow up in heaven? Do you think that she’s going to get bigger and grow older?”

Corrie thought of the writing on Sadie’s casket, from Matthew 19:17, “Jesus said, ‘ Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. ‘ “

Afterward, Sabrina remarked, “You know what, Mommy? I think God’s going to turn all the old people to be like little children so they can laugh and play.”

Cason, who was closer in age to Sadie and who’s told his mommy about how he wants to go to “God’s big house” and play soccer with Sadie, recently said, “Mommy, I just wish Sadie wasn’t lost.”

“Because to him, he was playing with her one day,” Corrie said. “So, again, to try to explain to a 4-year old what has happened to his best friend. He’s still working through that, but I was able to share with him, ‘Baby, she’s not lost. She’s in heaven with Jesus, and she’s having the best time. It’s so beautiful there.’”

The family slept in one room for the first week or two after Sadie passed. Since then, Sabrina and Piper have returned to the room they shared with their younger sister, and both have told their mother about how it feels like Sadie is sleeping in their beds with them.

Sometimes Sadie still joins her siblings for playtime outside, compliments of the imagination of Sabrina, who shared her favorite thing about Sadie - “That she liked to play with me.” In fact, when yellow balloons were released on the day of Sadie’s funeral, Sabrina had attached a note to the one she let go, which assured, “I miss you. I love you. Have fun.”

Once when Corrie asked the girls if they missed Sadie, Sabrina said, “Yes, I do.” Piper, however, remarked, “No.”

“Because I know she’s in heaven and I know she’s OK,” Piper told her mommy. “I know she’s not hurting. I know she’s having fun.”

When they feel sad and miss Sadie, the children are encouraged to pray for others, like children who lost their parents last year from the mass shooting in Texas, or a child in their neighborhood who has leukemia.

For the sake of themselves and their children, the Andrews are determined to continue with their daily routines. The grief their family is enduring has a mighty sting, one most would deem unbearably crushing, or at the very least heartbreaking. But it has also strengthened their love and unity, increased their prayers, bolstered their Christian beliefs.

Hope, as reinforced by the multiple Bible verses that have continually emerged for Corrie, consoles and supplies confidence to their faith. The testing of their faith, Corrie explained, offers a purpose to their pain.

“We’ll tell people, ‘We didn’t lose Sadie,’” Corrie said. “Because Sadie was never ours to begin with. Sadie was a gift from God.”

Others’ generosity has encouraged them, and the Andrews have met others who have lost children as well. Realizing a need for a therapeutic outlet that offers help to both parents and siblings who have lost family, the Andrews are looking into creating a nonprofit that will offer a weekend retreat for grieving families.

A potential name: “Sadie’s Hope.”

“Right now we don’t know exactly how it’s going to look,” Tracy said. “Just sharing some of the things about our child, their child, and talking with one another about how we’ve dealt with it. What’s helped us and what’s helped them.”

“Inviting them into our family, so to speak,” Corrie added.

Requesting that others keep them in their prayers, Corrie said their family copes with Sadie’s physical absence “one day at a time.”

“Because God never promises tomorrow, and Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries,’” Corrie said, citing Matthew 6:33-34. “In Jesus’ name, you press on.”

___

Information from: Opelika-Auburn News, http://www.oanow.com/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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