When he aches to hold his young son, give him a squeeze and brush back his blond hair, Gentry Eddings watches videos that comfort his troubled heart.
The father, a campus pastor at Charlotte’s Forest Hill Church, keeps going back to one: a quick romp by 2-year-old Dobbs Eddings through a steady April rain. As the boy splashes in a puddle, a family member playfully slants a black umbrella so it dumps a cascade of rain on his already-drenched head.
To laughter, Dobbs turns quickly, jumps and squeals in a Southern accent: “Don’t get me way-yut!”
This will be the first Easter without Dobbs. On May 23, a month after the video was made, he was killed in a wreck in coastal Pender County. The crash ultimately claimed his younger brother, Reed, who doctors delivered that day in a frantic effort to save his life.
Out of the wreckage that took their sons, Gentry Eddings and his wife , Hadley, have embraced the promise of Easter as they work to resurrect their lives. Following Jesus’ example, the couple has forgiven the 28-year-old truck driver who caused the wreck and found peace in their certainty that they will see their sons again in heaven.
Their remarkable ability to forgive has inspired a church community helping the couple cope with their loss, as well as those around the world who’ve encountered their story. It has also touched the prosecutor who put the man who killed their children in prison.
“Their faith has not been shaken, it has been deepened,” said Benjamin David, the district attorney from Wilmington who prosecuted the driver. David said his office handles 75,000 cases a year, but he has never seen the level of compassion that he has witnessed from Gentry and Hadley Eddings. “This couple has about them a peace that passes all understanding … I would love to believe that any of us would have that capacity to forgive. It is so rare.
“In the book the Eddings read and believe, the Bible, they know the end of the story. And in the end of the story, love wins.”
A joyful life
Gentry, 29, and Hadley, 28, grew up devout Christians, but their spiritual commitment wavered during college.
Gentry was a freshman at Arizona State University in the fall of 2005 when he realized he’d strayed. “I was living life mostly for myself, my own gain,” he said. “I knew I wanted a recommitted life with Jesus.”
He left school and moved back to his parents’ house in Phoenix. He’d returned to church when they all moved to Charlotte in 2006. One Sunday, his father announced they were all going to Columbia to services at the church attended by Gentry’s sister. During the service, the minister called on Hadley Reed to tell her story about what had led her back to God.
“I remember my sister telling me of a woman at her church she wanted me to meet with a similar testimony as mine,” Gentry said. “Hadley said that during her freshman year (at Winthrop University) she realized how much she needed God. She needed a friend. I thought: ‘She’s beautiful, she’s got a faith in God like I have. This is the kind of girl I want to be with.’
“I’d been set up.”
He didn’t protest and found any excuse to visit his sister in Columbia, where Hadley had transferred to Columbia College. They dated, then married on May 23, 2009. Four years later on Feb. 12, 2013, Gentry Dobbs Eddings III was born.
With renewed purpose, Gentry had completed Bible college at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, and he was pursuing a master’s degree in Christian thought at the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
He worked hard and, in time, found his calling as a music pastor at the Ballantyne campus of Forest Hill, a nondenominational and theologically conservative church with five campuses. Hadley teaches in the church’s pre-school.
Gentry graduated last May. It came a week before he was scheduled to preside over a joyous event at Topsail Beach: his sister Amber’s wedding. It was his first as the officiating minister.
“Celebrating a wedding is one of those moments in life full of a lot of joy and hope for the future,” he said. “For me just having graduated, and having a family with one son and looking forward to having a second son, I knew that not only was I blessed, but I had peace in my heart.”
‘Enjoy the moment’
Gentry was nervous as the wedding approached.
By then Dobbs was 26 months, precocious and talking in sentences. Gentry and Hadley had taught him snippets of Bible verses. One that he’d recited over and over came from Psalm 46:10.
An hour before the ceremony, Gentry watched TV – trying to relax – when he should have been getting dressed. “All right, let’s go,” Hadley said racing around the room as she got Dobbs and herself ready. “Let’s keep it moving.”
Gentry began to dress but couldn’t find his belt and hurriedly rummaged through drawers and suitcases in search.
Dobbs stood by his parents’ bed. Sensing the growing tension, he suddenly shouted: “Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46, tee-yun.”
His parents froze, then laughed. Gentry hugged Dobbs. “That’s exactly right, buddy,” he told his son. “That’s exactly what we needed to hear. We need to slow down and enjoy the moment.”
It was a warm, cloudless Friday evening on the beach as 50 barefoot relatives and friends witnessed Gentry wed Amber and Stewart Justice at the end of a week at Topsail.
“It’s easy to say words of commitment,” Gentry told the couple. “But the challenge is in living out that commitment through the ups and downs of life. There will be challenges where you will need to forgive one another.”
Light turned red
The next morning, May 23, Gentry and Hadley awoke and wished each other a happy anniversary. It was their sixth.
They began packing for the drive back to Charlotte. Other Eddings family members were packing, too. Late morning, three generations of Eddings left in five cars, planning to caravan home.
By then, Matthew Deans had been up for hours. At 2:45 that morning, Deans bought what he thought was pure heroin in Wilmington, according to a timeline by the office of District Attorney David, whose district includes Pender County.
According to that account, Deans was scheduled to fetch a load of fish that day for a Carolina Beach seafood company. On little sleep, he picked up a red 2012 Freightliner refrigerated box truck at 7:30 a.m. and started for Beaufort and Sneads Ferry, more than an hour north.
Three hours later, he sent a text “to his dealer” complaining the drugs tasted bad, “but got me high tho.”
After stopping at a Bojangles’ to eat lunch, the Eddings convoy continued south on four-lane U.S. 17. Five minutes later at 12:18 p.m., the light turned red at the intersection with Sloop Point Loop Road near the town of Hampstead, 10 miles northeast of Wilmington.
Deans, driving the speed limit, told investigators that he was reaching for a hamburger when he looked up and saw cars stopped ahead. He said he “locked” the brakes in a panic, but there was no time to stop or swerve to miss them.
Gentry’s sister, Brook, was driving the front car with her three children. In her rear-view mirror, she saw a truck barreling down on the group. “She pretty instinctively ran the red light to give us room to try to get out the way,” Gentry said.
No one could. Behind Brook was a Ford Edge with Gentry’s parents, Gentry Sr. and Patricia Eddings; then a 2012 Kia Sorento, driven by a pregnant Hadley, with Dobbs strapped in a car seat in the back. At the rear, Gentry drove a 2015 Kia Sol. He and Hadley had taken separate cars; she’d driven to the beach later in the week after finishing her year at the pre-school.
The truck crashed into Gentry’s car and sent it tumbling. It ended up on its roof in the median. Then the truck slammed into Hadley’s car, crunching the rear-end.
Finally, Deans’ truck rolled on its side to a stop in the road.
Source: Charlotte Observer | DAVID PERLMUTT