Written by Tim Elsworth for the Summer 2013 edition of Unionite.
To view the original article, click here.
A mangled Buick and a banged-up Dodge truck sat on Highway 1187 as Doug Helms drove to Rock Creek Baptist Church on a typical hot, Texas summer Thursday. As pastor there for 14 years, he had made the trip hundreds of times.
This time, however, he met the mess of an awful accident. He could recognize a pickup truck. The other vehicle was so badly damaged he couldn’t make it out.
“Lord, I pray for whoever that was,” Doug prayed. “I don’t see how they could survive that. But if he or she is still alive, please save them and raise them back up.”
An hour later, his wife Selah called him at the church. “Come to the hospital,” she told him. “Pete’s been in a serious wreck.”
In a perfect world, Peter Helms would have been a freshman at Union University in the fall of 2010, following in the footsteps of his older brothers Andrew (2007) and Caleb (2009). He was three weeks away from moving from his home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Jackson. His bags were packed.
“Peter was excited about Union,” Doug says. “He wanted to go. He saw the good things that happened to Andrew and Caleb, and he thought it was going to be a great experience for him, too.”
In a perfect world, Doug and Selah Helms would have been finished with the bulk of the parenting and caregiving for their four exceptional kids. Andrew was a doctoral student in philosophy at Notre Dame. Caleb was an accountant in Fort Worth. Their daughter Beth was studying music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Peter had shown aptitude in art, history, theology and writing and seemed to be considering God’s call into the ministry.
Four kids who excelled academically and who loved Christ deeply. By any measure, their labors as parents— the prayers, the encouragement, the instruction, the admonishment, the discipline—had been immensely successful.
In a perfect world, Peter would have just finished his junior year at Union this spring. He had a full tuition scholarship and planned to be a member of Union’s debate team. What would his college years have been like? Would he have loved Union as much as his brothers did? What field of study would he have chosen? What would his career path have been? Who would his friends have been? Would he have his eye on a young lady?
Those questions don’t have answers, because that accident on July 29, 2010, reminded the Helms family in a painful way that this is not a perfect world. All the dreams and the hopes they had for Peter vanished in a second when a half-ton Dodge pickup broadsided him.
Though the accident didn’t claim his life, it claimed almost everything else— his personality, his communication, his intellect, his mobility, his self-sufficiency.
Peter’s condition, labeled as traumatic brain injury, has destroyed the pathways from his brain to his body. He’s not paralyzed, but he can’t speak or control his movements. He has minimal usage of his left arm and hand, allowing him to give weakened hugs to family members and push something away that he doesn’t want. Those small movements are skills he has regained since his accident. He has also recovered a limited ability to eat.
“It’s been the biggest battle for our faith that we’ve ever faced,” Peter’s mother Selah says. “We’ve been alive 50-something years, and we’ve had all the various trials that people generally have in life. But this one really takes the cake.”
Over the past three years, the Helms family has learned to rely on each other more than ever before. They’ve felt the love and support of fellow Christians in their church, in their local community and around the world. But most of all, they’ve leaned heavily on the Scriptures to get them from today to tomorrow, as they’ve endured unimaginable heartache and challenges, with no apparent end in sight.
“The only satisfying source of comfort is in what God’s revealed to us in his word,” Doug says. “I look at the possibility of Peter being like this for the rest of his life, maybe for the rest of my life, and sometimes it’s just, wow. We’re tied to this burden that we can’t bear.”
But then Doug reads passages like 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
A highly intelligent son who may never talk to them again? A light and momentary affliction.
An active son who loved playing basketball and who may never walk again? A light and momentary affliction.
Empty nest years now replaced with round-the-clock care for their invalid son? A light and momentary affliction.
Yes, caring for Peter can sometimes seem burdensome and overwhelming. But then Selah reminds herself of who Peter was before his accident. She has described him as a classically-educated Samwise Gamgee, the “Lord of the Rings” character who aids Frodo in his quest to destroy the ring—always quietly helping someone else succeed.
“He’s brave when you are weak,” she wrote on a blog posting shortly after the crash. “He’s loyal when you’re discouraged. And if you get tired, he’ll help shoulder the burden. He just also happens to be a National Merit Finalist.”
She has recounted the ways that Peter was a constant encouragement to them and to others—printing and folding church bulletins early Sunday mornings, helping clean the church building, fixing breakfast early on Saturdays for the men’s book studies (and never complaining about not getting to sleep in), sitting with a 9-year-old boy at church whose parents don’t attend.
The night before his accident, Peter finished his final Eagle Scout project— building a chain-link fence around the playground at his church and decorating the area with timbers and mulch. The rank of Eagle Scout was bestowed upon him in his hospital bed.
“This is one of the many graces God has given our family in this challenging situation: it’s not at all hard to serve Peter,” Selah wrote. “It’s always a blessing to get to serve one who has offered himself in service to the Lord and to others. Just as Peter has modeled service to us in the Lord, it’s easy for us to serve the Lord by serving Peter.”
“All the good things that Peter had—all of the skills, all of the personality traits that he was able to display—everything we loved about Peter was a gift from the Lord, and Peter was not the source of those things,” Andrew says. “When we face something like his accident—an event like that—we’re being directed to look up from the broken image to the one who gave him all of those good things.
“As hard as it is to see how this could be, this accident was for Peter’s good as well. It is the Lord’s plan in his life to bring Peter into closer communion with him and into deeper trust in him. That’s really what’s important for us, and that’s what’s really important for Peter.”
Peter was on his way to mow the lawn of an elderly church member the morning of his accident. He sat on a country road, preparing to cross a busier thoroughfare. A semi driver also waited at the intersection, wanting to turn onto the road where Peter was stopped.
Reports indicate that the truck driver motioned Peter through the intersection. Peter obliged, not seeing that another vehicle was behind the semi and was speeding toward him. As he advanced through the intersection, that pickup truck slammed into Peter—in an instant ending the kind of life he had known and the expectations of that life in the future.
Andrew Helms spent the morning in a coffee shop in South Bend, Ind., studying for his comprehensive exams. Always concerned about his grades, Andrew is one of those students whose worries about academics are almost always unfounded.
After graduating summa cum laude from Union in 2007, he finished his master’s degree at Texas A&M before beginning his doctoral work at Notre Dame.
He had returned to his room after his morning’s studies and checked in on Facebook when he saw the status update posted by his sister Beth. Peter may have been in a serious accident. No details to report.
“Just exactly the kind of thing to cause you to worry,” Andrew says. “I prayed pretty desperately when I saw that.”
Seven years younger than Andrew, Peter often teamed up with his oldest brother against Caleb and Beth when the four played as children. While Andrew worried about things regularly, Peter took a more laid back approach to life.
“Peter has always been the person in my life who calms me down and loosens me up,” Andrew says. “Peter could always know exactly how to tease me out of taking myself so seriously.”
When Andrew reached his parents after hearing about Peter’s accident, he discovered that his youngest brother was unconscious. He wept over the phone as he heard details about Peter’s condition, praying that Peter would wake up and that the injuries would not have serious long-term consequences.
He then caught a flight back to his Fort Worth home, leaving nearly all his possessions in Indiana. He told his parents that he would stay with them as long as they needed him. As the days passed and it became clear that Peter wouldn’t be returning to normal anytime soon, Andrew decided to take a year’s break from his studies to remain in Texas with Peter, helping his parents with his brother’s care.
“Andrew has really shown his love and concern for Peter in his sacrifice in doing that,” Caleb Helms says. “I think he’s really been an example to a lot of people who have seen his willingness to set aside his career to help take care of Peter.”
The head of his department at Notre Dame graciously gave Andrew the time away from his studies to care for his brother. That care was the equivalent of several full-time jobs and involved keeping Peter clean, turning him in his bed, suctioning out his tracheostomy tube, as well as speech, physical and occupational therapy.
The work was often laborious, but Andrew’s time at home brought an unexpected blessing—he got to know a family friend, Amy Rose, who became his wife in 2012.
After a year, with volunteers and home health care workers on hand to continue providing for Peter’s needs, Andrew returned to Notre Dame. While he loves philosophy, it’s his grounding in Scripture that provides the basis for thinking about Peter’s life.
“The Lord really doesn’t owe us a certain kind of life,” Andrew says. “We’re not each guaranteed a fulfillment of the American dream. He doesn’t parcel out the American dream in accordance with how faithfully you’re following him.”
That’s evident, Andrew says, because Peter followed the Lord faithfully. He loved missions and serving others. Little kids at their church adored him.
“If we try to understand life along the lines of strict merit and reward, this would be extremely confusing,” Andrew says. “It would make us really bitter. But the Lord dispenses his gifts not in accord with that kind of system, but in accord with what will serve his own glory and what will be for our good.
“So ultimately, it may not be that the Lord primarily wants Peter to be a gifted artist or a skilled musician, but he wants Peter to be able to commune with him and to trust him.
“The only thing we’re really holding onto is communion with God through Christ.”
An electrician named Shawn who was working nearby witnessed the accident and rushed over to help. He took off his shirt and wiped away the blood gushing from Peter’s face, badly cut in two.
EMTs arrived on the scene and assessed the situation.
“This one’s gone,” they said as they looked in on Peter, preparing instead to concentrate their efforts on the other woman involved in the wreck. (She sustained minor injuries.)
“Oh no,” Shawn told them. “He’s still alive. You need to come and get him.”
Later in the day, Shawn posted photos of Peter’s car on Facebook.
“I helped this guy today,” Shawn wrote. “I’m sure he didn’t make it. Rest in peace, little dude. I did all I could.”
Growing up in Fort Worth, Peter spent hours as a young boy sitting and playing with small, intricate toys. His skill as an artist manifested itself early, as Peter regularly lay on his stomach on the floor and listened as Doug read books to the children—books like The Chronicles of Narnia or Little House on the Prairie.
As he listened, he occupied himself by sketching pictures of the characters and scenes in the stories. His drawings still adorn his room in the Helms home, along with the ribbons that Peter won in several local art competitions.
Though quiet by nature, Peter often took full advantage of his status as the youngest child.
“He never got his fair share of spankings,” Caleb recalled. “He was a pretty good kid—that’s mostly compared to me and my sister—but he never got caught.”
Still, Peter’s heart for the Lord developed at an early age. He became a Christian as a young boy, and Selah remembers with tenderness the way Peter always prayed on his birthday each year.
“Thank you for these nine good years you’ve given me,” he’d pray. “You’ve been so good to me. If you’re so good to me as to let me live another year, let me live it for your glory.”
“We didn’t teach him to do that,” Selah says. “He was our only child to pray that prayer. He is a humble guy, and he recognized that everything that he had came from the Lord, and that he had given up rights to his own life.”
Home schooled like his other siblings, Peter spent a lot of time with his dad after his sister and brothers had left home. Like a typical teenager, Peter wrestled with various struggles and insecurities. But his love for the Lord continued to grow.
“Dad, some of the guys at church want to do a book study this summer,” Peter told Doug one day. “Do you think that would be OK?”
Doug was delighted with Peter’s initiative. The group chose John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, and had been reading through it in the weeks leading up to the wreck.
Some might see Peter now and think his life to be a wasted one. So much potential and promise. So many gifts and abilities. So much good that he could have done for God’s kingdom.
But the Helms family doesn’t view it that way, and Peter wouldn’t have viewed it that way. His favorite song, “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken,” refers to pain in God’s service being pleasure, and loss being gain.
“We feel that God doesn’t waste anything,” Doug says. “We’re tempted to see ourselves as just sidelined and set up on the shelf. God is going to get glory from your suffering, if you’re faithful, regardless of who knows it or who sees it or how many lives you touch.”
God is responsible, Doug says, not just for people’s abilities, but for their disabilities as well, and that even this accident is God’s doing in some way.
“Yes, Peter made a misstep out on the road,” he says. “But I’ve made a misstep out on the road too that could have ended in disaster, and God’s held me back from it. But God chose not to do that this time. He’s got some sort of purpose in this.”
That purpose isn’t always easy to see. But sometimes God provides glimpses that keep the Helms family encouraged. During a recent stay at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where Peter finally got his trach tube removed after more than two years, a respiratory therapist told Doug how blessed he had been by spending time with the family talking about the Bible.
“I have felt like a lost sheep for a long time, and I wondered if God would ever find me,” he said. “After spending this week with Peter, I feel that God is finding me. I have grown in my heart.”
God is still using Peter, even in his weakened condition, in ways that the Helms family never imagined.
Caleb Helms was at lunch with coworkers when he got the phone call about Peter’s accident. At first, he thought little of it. Caleb had been in a minor fender-bender earlier in the year. So had others in the family. Most wrecks aren’t too bad, Caleb thought to himself. He’ll probably be just fine.
The gravity of the situation began to sink in, however, as more and more details emerged. Caleb quickly joined his family at the hospital.
“It was kind of scary seeing him hooked up to all these machines,” Caleb says.
Peter’s face was covered in blood. Caleb later heard that only about 10 percent of people survive with injuries similar to Peter’s.
“I really didn’t know that he was going to survive for a while,” Caleb says. “I couldn’t really imagine life without Peter.”
Peter was always much more interested in being Caleb’s wrestling opponent than Andrew was. Though Peter described himself as the “jock son” of Doug and Selah, Caleb contested that. The two opposed each other in chess regularly as well.
But it wasn’t until Caleb left home for Union that he really began to appreciate some of his younger brother’s characteristics—such as the way Peter always tried to reach out to those who were new at the church or those who didn’t have as many friends.
“It showed that he was humble in that he didn’t have to have people always being around him, being his friends,” Caleb says. “He was willing to go and make others feel welcome.”
Like Andrew, Caleb pitched in to help with Peter’s care as much as he could. His station in life was a bit different from Andrew’s, however, making it more difficult for him to assist as much. For one thing, Caleb was married, and he knew his relationship with his wife Hope couldn’t be sacrificed. He was also preparing for the CPA exam.
“It’s something that hasn’t gone away, and that’s been one of the harder aspects of it,” Caleb says. “It’s been a constant emotional stress. It’s realizing that we’re not able to talk to him, and we miss him. We can spend all day with him and still miss him, because we miss hearing him talk and carrying on a conversation with us. It’s kind of like having him around and losing him at the same time.”
But he credits his parents with providing them with a foundation and a framework to understand the circumstances in the light of God’s sovereignty and love.
“We have the assurance that we’ll see him again in heaven, no matter what happens on earth,” Caleb says. “It’s really hard to deal with the realization that we might not interact with him again on earth like we have, but we do have that assurance to encourage us.”
Peter’s future in this life remains uncertain. Though family members held out hope for a while about improvements in his condition, time has tempered those expectations. Any significant changes now will likely be slow in coming, if they come at all. Sometimes for Doug and Selah, even getting out of bed in the morning can be challenging.
Their faith through the trials, however, is nothing short of remarkable. They may not know what the future holds, but they know what God has said to them in the Bible.
For example, Doug quotes Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Peter fits squarely under the heading of “the secret things of God,” Doug says. They ask God what he’s going to do with Peter, and the reply is, “I’m not going to tell you. But in the meantime, I’ve given you a lot to do. Focus on those things.”
“You can lie in bed and wonder what’s going to happen, and feel sorry for yourself, and feel sorry for Peter,” Doug says. “Or you can get up and go do what you’re supposed to do. It doesn’t do him any good for me to be depressed. And I’m depressed over this sometimes. And there are some times when we just have to cry.”
The episode has made the Helms family much more sympathetic to others who are enduring trials and afflictions. They can empathize with the pain, with the uncertainty, with the grief. And they have a fresh appreciation for the life that is to come.
As home schoolers, Selah says they raised their kids to be leaders and influencers here on earth. Though they love the Lord’s work and the Lord’s kingdom, their focus tended to be that kingdom in its current state, in this life. Let’s go change the world. Let’s take some ground for the Lord’s kingdom.
“The last two years have violently disentangled my fingers from earth and set me much more on looking to heaven,” Selah says. “I’m not nearly as attached to earth as I used to be. My Christian life is not about being here so much anymore. I feel like, hopefully, that will make me more useful down here, for as long as I am here.
“I don’t think I could make it through this without thinking about heaven and what heaven has in store for God’s people,” she continues. “Because we don’t know what Peter will get back here on earth.”
But they do know that regardless of Peter’s condition in a year, or five years, or 30 years, a day is coming when they will reunite with their son in another life. Peter’s body and mind will be whole. He will be able to walk, to wrestle, to sing. And they will be able, once again, to listen to him and to laugh with him.
In essence, the Helms family has an unshakeable faith that God will answer that quick prayer that Doug offered on that July day—if not in this life, then in the next.
In a perfect world.
By Tim Ellsworth