The Story of a Rising Angel

The Story of a Rising Angel

By Drew Baker

This is the story of how my brother died when he was five years old. It all started on a nice Sunday at Smith Mt. Lake. Me, Nate (by the way Nate is my brother’s name) and my cousin Hannah were swimming in the lake. Nate took off his life jacket and headed toward the house. I don’t know the rest but I’ll tell you what I think happened. What I think happened while no one was looking, Nate was practicing swimming by himself. He got going and got far then he started sinking. Then someone looked back and no one was there. Then everyone looked everywhere and couldn’t find him. The wait was long. Finally the police found him in the water. The end

This story came home with Drew the other day from school. He wrote it while in his 2nd grade class.

My story of the day that Nate died parallels Drew’s and the ending is not much different. Let me explain.

The summer of 2012 began great. We were excited for Drew to be out of school so that we could enjoy a family summer before Nate began kindergarten and our lives were again busy. We had planned two trips over the summer. Each trip was designed to spend time with family and relax from the hustle and bustle that we normally live.

In early July 2012 we traveled to Katie’s parent’s home at Smith Mountain Lake where we spent time with her parents, siblings, and our nieces and nephew. The kids enjoyed time boating, swimming, and spending time growing closer. Drew was initially hesitant to be jumping off the dock into the lake but his bravery was on display and he quickly found that he was not afraid. He wore his goggles and life vest and was proud that he had overcome his fear. He must have jumped off that dock a million times.

Nate was less sure about jumping off the dock. He would eventually agree to do so – only with the support of his life vest, goggles, and Katie or I catching him as he jumped into the water. He just couldn’t bring himself to jump off that dock alone.

Kaylee enjoyed the water and wanted to be out on the boat and in the water as much as possible. It was a great trip for all of us and we felt fortunate that everyone on Katie’s side of the family was able to join us during the weeklong trip.

Nate was always fearless and wanted to conquer anything in his path. It was not long after we returned from our trip to the lake that Nate began to talk about his own disappointment that he had not jumped off of the dock by himself. Katie talked with him about this and we both encouraged him to face his fear on our next trip to the lake.

Later in July we were fortunate to be able to spend time with my family while camping in Virginia. Everyone in my family found time to come together for this weeklong trip and we enjoyed time at the pool, late night camp fires and the kids were able to make countless memories with one another.

There was a large slide at the pool located at the campground that we stayed at and almost all of the kids were able to go down the slide. Drew was all for the slide and after a slight hesitation was up and down that slide more times than we could count. Nate was more unsure of the slide and hesitant to go down. After some coaxing, Nate built up the courage and decided to go down – one caveat……..”Catch me Dad. Don’t let my head go under water.” It was important to him as kids were not allowed to wear life vests on the slide. Nate was used to wearing his life vest when he was in the water and not being able to wear it on the slide made it a more difficult decision for him. I was happy to be able to stand at the bottom of that slide 1,000 times and catch Nate each time he came down. He was so proud of himself for going down that slide. He loved it!

The week of camping was great and we felt fortunate to be able to spend time with my entire family and build memories that we will not forget.

The summer of 2012 came to a close as quickly as it began and it was soon late August. Nate began the new adventure of kindergarten and as usual – he conquered this with the same bravery as he did everything.

At the beginning of August, Katie and I thought that another getaway was needed for the family. My work had been hectic and we both agreed that we needed to decompress and relax for a few days. Katie and I began discussing one last trip out of town to wrap up a great summer. We decided that we would travel back to Smith Mountain Lake to Katie’s parent’s house so that the kids could enjoy one last getaway. Boating, jetskiing, fishing, and swimming were high on our priority list.

We decided to surprise the kids with the trip to the lake. When the boys got off of the bus on the Thursday before Labor Day we had the car packed. We told them to get into the car that we were going on a trip. Nate walked to the rear of the car and noticed the fishing poles that my mother bought the boys over the summer were in the back. Nate climbed into his booster seat and said “We are going to Nanny and Papa’s house.” I asked him why he thought that and he said “I saw the fishing poles in the back.” He was right but I didn’t let on. We climbed into the car and began the drive to Smith Mountain Lake. During the trip we prodded the boys on where they thought we were going. Drew read the road signs and they asked questions but we still would not let on. As we headed down Route 81 in Virginia, we began to give the boys hints on our destination. I told them that if they were good – they may get to go motor boating. The boys then sang the country song “Motor Boating” but still had no clue where we were headed.

We had not told Katie’s parents that we were coming down and it was getting late in the evening. We decided that we may want to call to let them in on our secret. The boys called down and talked with Chris and Connie and gave them the clues to our destination. Chris and Connie kept the secret and we were well on our way to a long weekend at the lake. The boys were excited to arrive at our secret destination but Nate would fall asleep just minutes prior to our arrival.

The weekend began well. The kids were having a great time and were joined on Saturday by their cousin Hannah. They enjoyed rides on the jetski, boating, and swimming. Drew took right to the water and he and Hannah wasted no time getting back into the routine of jumping into the water from the dock. Nate was still weary and hesitant. Even with his life vest – he didn’t have the courage to jump off of the dock. I coaxed him on Saturday to face his fear and jump off the dock. He eventually agreed but placed prerequisites on doing so. As was the rule, he had to wear his life vest. He had to have his goggles on and he insisted “Dad – catch me. Don’t let my head go under water.” I agreed and got into the water. Before each jump, Nate would walk to the edge of the dock and ensure that I knew the rule, “Dad – don’t let my head go under water.” I caught him each time. With each jump I would allow him more freedom to go into the water just a bit more than the time before. After a few jumps he was confident and began jumping in by himself. He was so proud of himself. I remember the look on his face when he excited the water – it was joy and pride. Nate had conquered his fear. Drew, Nate, and Hannah would jump of that dock hundreds of time that Saturday and they thoroughly enjoyed their time together.

Sunday, September 2, 2012, the morning was a bit overcast and Katie was headed out to do some shopping with her mother and sister. Katie took Kaylee with her and I agreed that I would keep the boys at home and watch after Hannah while they were gone. I was comfortable with the boys – I had watched them a million times and they listen well. They know the rules and are well behaved. Kaylee would be with Katie as she had a tendency to be out of sorts without Katie around and had not yet become the daddy’s girl that everyone promises me she will.

My father-in-law Chris was home with me and we decided that the overcast skies provided a good opportunity to take the kids out on the lake fishing. We headed out on the boat and fished for a short while before the kids became bored. The kids decided that they wanted to take the boat further out on the lake for a short ride and then back to the house to swim. The weather was starting to clear and Chris and I agreed that this was a good plan.

After a short boat ride we headed back to the dock. The kids got off of the boat with their life vests on, put on their goggles, and headed into the water. Life vests were the rule and the kids knew this and followed it well. Chris and I remained on the dock while the kids jumped off the dock and swam. Chris and I fooled around on the dock as the kids continued swimming. At some point I looked into the water and realized that I didn’t see Nate. I walked to the edge of the dock to look in the water close to the dock and check the ladder. I immediately saw Drew and Hannah but Nate was not in sight. I then saw his life vest and water shoes sitting on the dock and thought that he must have gone to the house. My thought was that he needed to use the restroom or was hungry. He had done this before when he headed up to the house. I had reprimanded him before for not telling anyone that he was going to the house. I walked to the house and up the stairs from the basement and into the kitchen. I immediately looked in the kitchen and across the house and could see into the bathroom. Nate was nowhere to be found. That was the point that I knew something was wrong. I knew that Nate would be in one of these two places if he were in the house. I headed back outside and yelled at Chris. “Chris – have you seen Nate?” Chris was still on the dock and advised that he had just seen Nate near the loading dock next to the dock.

I could feel the panic begin to set in but told myself to remain calm. I began yelling for Nate and searching all around the house. I told Chris to call 911 and I was joined in my search by some neighbors and boaters who were outside and could hear me yelling Nate’s name. The police arrived a short time later and one of the officers tried to calm me. I remember him saying “He probably just wandered off.” As respectful as I could respond – I told him that he did not know Nate. I know Nate and I know that he would not just wander off. Nate was adventurous but was not the type of kid to go off on his own without telling me where he was headed.

I remember calling Katie on the phone and telling her that I could not find Nate. Not a call that I ever thought I would make. How do you lose your son? Moreover – how do you allow something to happen to your son? I remember that as they searched for Nate I felt as helpless as I had ever felt in my life. In so many situations I had been able to help. At this very moment when my family needed me to be able to do something, to fix it………..I was helpless.

Nate was gone. Our lives changed. My heart was broken. Not sure how else to explain it.

Drew’s story summed it up pretty well “I don’t know the rest.” That version sounds much like mine. I think that is one of the hard parts. None of us know what happened to Nate. I try not to speculate about what occurred – the “How did it happen?” “Well maybe this happened.” I think that those things will only make me crazy and not really answer the question.

I think the hardest part is knowing that I was responsible for Nate that day. He was in my care and custody and on that day – I failed him. It hurts to think that he was probably looking for his dad to jump in that water and save him and I did not know he had gone in. I have had conversations over the last month or so and many people have said “You can’t blame yourself. Accidents happen.” I work in a profession that doesn’t believe in accidents. An accident would indicate that the event was not preventable. When two cars collide – it is not an accident. It is a collision. It is preventable. Nate’s death was preventable.

I don’t know that I blame anyone – myself included. I do feel some sort of responsibility. These are the facts and that feeling of responsibility will not change. It is something that I carry with me and will until the day I see Nate again.

I recall a conversation I had with the boys over the summer while riding in the car. The boys began talking about God and discussing the fact that God created everything. Nate was insistent that God created everything – EVERYTHING. I drove the car as they talked in the back seat and the conversation turned to dying. I remember thinking that the conversation was getting deep and I chimed in “Boys – I will never let anything happen to you.” I said it twice for emphasis. That’s a tough thing to promise and not deliver on.

As much as I love my kids and I felt that nothing of this magnitude would ever befall my family – it did. As much as I thought I could protect them in this world – I can but only to an extent. I am not perfect but I know that I am a good father. I know that my kids know that I love them and would never – within my control, allow something to happen to them. Katie and I talked the other day about our love for Nate. We agreed that Nate knew without a doubt that we loved him. We told him daily, we showed him daily and we will continue to share that love with Drew, Kaylee and anyone else who cares to learn about Nate and his GREATNESS.

Go Out. Be Great.



14 thoughts on “The Story of a Rising Angel

  1. Ciara

    There are honestly no words that seem worthy or come to mind to truly convey how sorry I am that you all have had to suffer such a profound and tragic loss. I only hope that through sharing your hearts, and sincere thoughts and words on this blog that others can begin to heal and help you heal. Nate WILL continue to make a difference through people that were never even blessed enough to have met him… like me. Striving to be Great-er everyday. My thoughts and prayers to you and yours.

  2. danelle

    As all your posts do, i am in tears. I don’t think it’s because of the sadness of your story but because of the guilt you feel
    You, like Jason, adore your children. You are great spouses,friends and most of all fathers. All you know is to protect and serve. What made your relationship so special with Nate was the way you loved him and he you. Kaylee may not be your little girl, but Nate was definitely your little boy. I think the one thing that is so wonderful is Nate’s love for God and all that was created. No one wants to think of the what really happened, but i believe at that moment, God wrapped his arms around Nate and carried him safely to heaven. Nate would and is so proud of what you and Katie are doing to remember him. You may have lost your baby boy, but by doing so, you both have touched so many other lives in the community and with the playground enriching so many children’s lives. Love you both! Danelle

  3. Jackie

    Love you Justin. I am heartbroken about this post. I know that you have gone over that day a million times in your mind. You and Drew have shown so much bravery by telling your stories to everyone. On top of being an amazing father to Drew, Nathan and Kaylee, I want to thank you for being the best brother, uncle to Larkin and Hudson, and friend I could ever ask for. You push me to be a better every day and do more with the time I am given. xo

  4. Kathy and Doug

    Katie and Justin your blogs are heartbreaking, but after that comes honest, uplifting, inspiring messages of love and faith. Your strength is amazing….and to be able to share these raw emotions with us is so courageous and generous…..We wish we could take your pain away. We know that’s not possible, but one day you will be with Nate again. I know he is watching all you are doing in his honor and saying, it’s pretty GREAT to be a part of the Baker family. All our love and wishing you peace in the months to come. Love always Doug and Kathy

  5. Jenelle Baker Cannon

    Love you Justin. If God knows the number of days we have as I believe he does, I believe he hand picked one of the best sets of parents a child could have, you and katie showed Nate more love in 6 years than most people get their whole lives. You took your kids so many places, got them into so many fun activities and spent endless summers for your kids enjoyment. Everyone who knows you two, knows exactly who you lived for, your three kids. Nate was so loved and experienced so much in his time here because of the two of you. Even now with everything youve gone through in the last month and a half its still so evident that you live each day for them, keep being GREAT. Love you guys

  6. Mindy

    Oh my goodness Justin! Every blog post that you and Katie write just breaks my heart! You are both such an inspiration and a light in this dark and crazy world. I continue to pray for you all and look forward to seeing your family whole again. Keep being beautiful!

  7. Natalie

    You did everything right as a parent. We want to protect them every moment, but we can’t…that is part of learning and growing…even though it doesn’t make it easier. I think of you all everyday as a parent of young children living on the lake. It could have been any one of us. When we become parents, we discover a love that you can never know without being a parent – we also risk knowing a pain that you can never know unless you are a parent. The risk of the pain is worth just one day of knowing the love of a parent. Stay strong. Your story has made me hug my kids tighter and made me a greater parent. I am so sorry for your family. Remember, you are doing everything right.

  8. Doug, Crystal, Landon, and Allie

    Justin and Katie,
    thank you for having the strength to share your thoughts and feelings. We wish you didn’t have to feel the hurt you feel. Always know you did and are still doing the best you can in this life. Nate was such a joy to have in our lives and you could tell without a doubt that boy loved you two with all he had!. Knowing Nate like we did, when you looked at him he had that “I want to be like dad!” look in his eyes and he adored his mom like a true momma’s boy 🙂 We are so proud of the way you are pulling the strength you have to add GREATNESS into the world! Know we love you very much!

  9. Patty McHugh

    This must have been a very difficult story to put into words, Justin. I could feel my heart beating faster, as the story continued! I pray for you, Katie, and your wonderful family, every day!
    Thank you for taking the time to share, with each of us, the love you have for your family! You and Katie are amazing parents! The two of you have taught each of us to appreciate every second we have with one another, because we never know when God will call us home! You spent your time away from work, very wisely….having fun with the entire family! These wonderful family adventures/memories, will help you through the difficult times.
    Please know that we are all here for you, and your family.
    Drew and Kaylee will always have Nate close to their hearts, along with the rest of this world! Thank you for sharing your wonderful family with each of us!

  10. Jan Snow

    Justin – your strength continues to amaze me!!! It is natural to carry a certain amount of guilt….but keep in mind that God allowed his son to die on the cross … he did not let him down by doing that…he had a plan….just as he had a plan in calling Nate….you could not have changed that and did everything in your control to keep your son safe. The amount of prayer that Nate has brought back into school is one of the things that continues to amaze me…there are so many other blessings that Nates life has brought….stay focused on them!!! I love you, Katie and the family so much!!!

  11. Julie Armstrong

    Justin, I know that this post must have been difficult but perhaps healing as well. You and Katie have touched more lives than you will ever know. I’ve talked to people that do not know you personally but have read your blogs. They’ve told me that it has changed their way of thinking. I think that so many of us can relate to the blogs, Quiet, The Grass, along with the other blogs. I am treasuring each moment, practicing patience and appreciating the blessings in my life thanks to your eulogy, and the blogs that you and Katie have posted. I wish that there is more that we could do for you and your family, but I hope that you can find comfort in knowing how many people care and support your family. I agree with the previous post, through such a tragedy and loss, you’ve inspired adults and our children to be great, generous and caring. We’re always here for you.

  12. megan

    Even through your pain, I can feel your strength. I think about you guys all of time. Even in your darkest moments, your words convey a conviction only the strongest of people can maintain. We are thinking of your family this holdiay break.

    Megan Struder (Pratt), Lennie Struder, Aubrey, Rhys and Lizzie

  13. Stacy

    Beautifully said. May God continue to bless you and your family. I hope you continue to heal as best as possible. Although I do not know you, I’m sure you are a great father! You have touched my heart this morning. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us all of how vulnerable we really are. The only one truly in control is God. Your son was a handsome little boy! Let your heart be at peace knowing you will see him again one sweet day.


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