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.
The thing I love about Easter is that you actually see life bursting around you and I think that God is giving us the visual reminder that resurrection – death bursting to life – is right there in front us.
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.
One life gone
Law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics raced to the wreckage. Hadley turned to check on Dobbs but couldn’t see him. She heard nothing from the back seat.
Firefighters worked to extract Dobbs from the wreckage. One firefighter helped Gentry out of his car. He told Gentry they were trying to get his son out – he tried to reassure him that Dobbs would be OK.
Paramedics put Hadley and Gentry in an ambulance and rushed them to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. The back of Gentry’s head was cut. A staple stopped his bleeding. Hadley, eight months pregnant, had been pushed against the steering wheel and suffered bruises and scrapes.
Paramedics were concerned about injuries to her baby. Gentry’s parents stayed behind to look after Dobbs.
As soon as the couple arrived at the hospital, doctors began an emergency cesarean section to deliver Reed. During the delivery, Gentry’s parents arrived at the hospital. From their expressions, he knew the news wasn’t good.
Grief turns to faith
Within minutes, Reed was born at 7 pounds, 1 ounce. He had head injuries and was placed in intensive care. Doctors were concerned about bleeding around his brain.
Before checking on Hadley, Gentry went to see Reed. “Hey buddy,” he said, bending over the baby. He placed a finger in Reed’s hand, and the baby lightly gripped it. As Gentry continued to talk to him, he remembers Reed turning his heard toward the voice.
He left his newborn son to break the news about Dobbs to Hadley. When she awoke, he told her: “Dobbs is in heaven with Jesus.” The paramedics said the boy had died instantly.
She sobbed, quietly.
Hadley asked about Reed. “He’s OK,” Gentry said. “He’s beautiful. I went to see him and he turned his head toward me.”
Then she asked about the driver of the truck. She told Gentry she felt no anger toward Matthew Deans. Later, she explained: “I felt sorry for him. He has to live with this for the rest of his life.”
The next day, Reed’s condition had not improved. That evening, doctors in Wilmington had him flown by helicopter to N.C. Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill, where surgeons were better equipped to treat his head injuries.
Gentry and Hadley were flown up a day later. When they arrived, Reed’s prognosis had worsened. They took turns holding him, but doctors told them that if their son survived, his quality of life likely would not be good. “We certainly would have loved our child no matter what state he was in,” Gentry said.
Ultimately, doctors told them their baby had no brain activity. Gentry and Hadley decided to remove Reed from life support.
“We had reached a point where we couldn’t process any more grief, so we turned to faith,” Gentry said. “We have a strong faith in the resurrection and knew that if we took Reed off life support that he would go to heaven and be with Dobbs.”
At a memorial service eight days after the wreck, Gentry talked to hundreds gathered at Forest Hill about his loss and faith. He suggested if they wanted to honor his sons, they could send donations to the Mission of Hope Haiti, a nonprofit that partners with Forest Hill to help the village of Minoterie.
He said he and Hadley had forgiven Deans. He asked those there that day to do the same.
‘In awe of these two’
Three months later, Ben David, the district attorney, drove to Charlotte in August to meet with the couple. He’d wanted to see them in person, arranging for space with Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray.
He told Gentry and Hadley the wreck was no accident, and he wanted to pursue a harsher sentence. He said Deans’ texts showed he’d taken drugs hours before the wreck and had slept little that night.
“I told them that there were factors that might take this incident to an impairment case,” David said. Yet those details didn’t weaken the compassion Gentry and Hadley felt toward Deans.
They said, ‘Our boys are in heaven and we pray the defendant will be one day too – and we can all hold hands together.’ It was clear that this was their sincere belief. I was in awe of these two.
District Attorney Benjamin David of Wilmington
David considers himself a religious man. He’s a Presbyterian raised by a Jewish father and Episcopalian mother. But he said he’d never witnessed such conviction in his 17 years as a prosecutor. “They said, ‘Our boys are in heaven, and we pray the defendant will be one day too – and we can all hold hands together,’ ” David said. “It was clear that this was their sincere belief. I was in awe of these two.”
In the end, David concluded he couldn’t prove Deans was impaired – that the drugs he’d texted about had passed through his system by the time blood samples were taken. He charged Deans with two counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The day before the Sept. 2 hearing, David told Gentry and Hadley he’d met with Deans and had found him genuinely remorseful. Deans wanted to be punished, David said.
Deans’ lawyer, Lawrence Shotwell of Wilmington, had known Deans since he was a boy surfing on the north end of Carolina Beach. He described Deans as “painfully” introverted, but someone who always worked hard.
Shotwell told Deans that there were issues in the case worth taking before a jury. Deans said no, he wanted to plead guilty.
“He felt awful about it,” Shotwell said. “He wanted to get past it – he didn’t want to put (the Eddings family) through a trial.”
‘Our resurrection hope’
Two days before his hearing, Deans brought Shotwell a written statement that he planned to read aloud. Shotwell forgot to bring the statement to court. He told Deans to “speak from his heart.”
In the courtroom, Deans turned to Hadley and Gentry:
“There’s not enough words to tell you how sorry I am and how my irresponsibility ruined you-all’s lives,” he said, according to a court transcript. “If there was anything I could do to trade places, it wouldn’t take me a second to think about it.”
There’s not enough words to tell you how sorry I am and how my irresponsibility ruined you-all’s lives. If there was anything I could do to trade places, it wouldn’t take me a second to think about it.
Matthew Deans, charged with causing the wreck
Hadley thanked him.
Deans continued: “I’m going to live a better life, living it for you and your kids, you all, and your whole family.”
Then it was Hadley and Gentry’s turn. They’d both rehearsed their statements.
Hadley’s words flowed: “From the day this happened, I’ve been very concerned about you. While losing my children has been the most devastating thing of my entire life, I know – without a doubt – that they are in heaven and that they are whole and that they are perfect. So I look at you and I say, I want you to have that, too.
“I’m not mad at you. I forgive you. I want you to be rehabilitated. I want you to have a good life – I don’t want this to be the end for you.”
Then Gentry: “Words cannot describe how important (Dobbs and Reed) are to us … Our resurrection hope is to see them again. And that gives us hope. So we understand the magnitude of what’s happened. With that in mind, I just wanted you to know that, as Hadley said, we know that it was not your intention for them to die … That is significant and meaningful for me and for Hadley.
“Still mistakes were made that led us to this place. But I want you to know that I sincerely forgive you completely.”
From the day this happened, I’ve been very concerned about you. While losing my children has been the most devastating thing of my entire life, I know – without a doubt – that they are in heaven and that they are whole and that they are perfect. So I look at you and I say, I want you to have that too.
Hadley Eddings, to Matthew Deans
As the couple spoke, Deans’ lips trembled, David said. Not once did he avert his eyes from them.
Deans is serving 15 to 32 months in a state prison near Wilmington.
‘It will be a mystery’
Throughout it all, Hadley never doubted her faith. But shortly after the wreck, she recalled, she did wonder: “Why Dobbs and Reed? Why Gentry and me?”
In moments of deep grief, she has asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Gentry said he’d been prepared for his grief.
Shortly after Dobbs was born, he questioned his faith when Hadley nearly died of a ruptured ulcer. Months later, Gentry said he’d grown edgy and was losing sleep after almost losing his wife. It sent him on a “spiritual journey.”
He meditated. He read scripture – he lost more sleep. He concluded that his faith was real. It fortified him for the mangled steel of May 23.
The day after the wreck, a Sunday, Forest Hill Senior Pastor David Chadwick spoke to Gentry’s congregation on the Ballantyne campus. He spoke about grief and about why bad things happen to good people, asking: “How could God allow this to happen?”
The truth is, Chadwick said, “We don’t know why this happened. It will be a mystery on this side of eternity.”
‘You can’t change it’
Ten months later, Hadley and Gentry don’t dwell on “what ifs.” “Of course we’ve thought about that,” Hadley said. “What if we had left the restaurant earlier, or later? What if the light was green? But that’s like punishing yourself. You can’t change it.”
They want more children – but aren’t yet ready.
The two attend weekly counseling. Hadley still teaches 4-year-olds at the church pre-school and faces her grief every day she walks in. When she sees Dobbs’ old class, out of habit she tends to duck – like she did last year so he wouldn’t see her and want to go to her class.
Last week on the main campus of Forest Hill Church, pink and white cherry tree blossoms were in full bloom. Gentry and Hadley, hand-in-hand, were reminded that there is renewal with each new season.
“We will always miss and long for our boys,” Gentry said. “But the thing I love about Easter and spring is that you actually see life bursting around you and I think that God is giving us the visual reminder that resurrection – death bursting to life – is right here in front us.
“That gives me a lot of hope.”
They are also comforted that their sons aren’t forgotten. Even at such tender ages, they’ve left a legacy.
Approximately $100,000 in donations has been collected since the wreck and sent to the nonprofit group that Forest Hill partners with to help Haiti.
Part of it, the Eddings recently learned, will build a nine-room cinderblock school in the seaside village of Minoterie.
They’ll call it The Dobbs and Reed Grade School.
Want to donate
To make a tax-deductible donation to the school in Minoterie, Haiti, send a check to Mission of Hope, Haiti, P.O. Box 171500, Austin, Texas, 78717. Be sure to designate that the donation go to “The Dobbs and Reed Grade School.” You can also make a donation on the group’s website here or http://www.mohhaiti.org/.