On October 2, 2006, 20-year-old firefighter/EMT Matt Swatzell had just gotten off a 24-hour shift at his station in Dacula, Georgia. He was dead tired, but he was confident he could make it home safely. He was wrong.
He was just a couple miles from home and didn’t realize he was falling asleep until it was too late. He drifted into oncoming traffic and hit another car, one driven by June Fitzgerald, a 30-year-old wife and mother who was pregnant with her second child. She was killed in the accident, and her son, who was due in just two months, never got to take his first breath.
Incredibly, another passenger in the car, 19-month-old Faith, survived with only “mild abrasions and bruises,” says Pastor Erik Fitzgerald, June’s widower. “Hearing the news, just trying to process it, not only did I lose my wife and best friend, I lost my son.”
It’s hard to wrap your mind around that kind of loss, but not that hard to imagine the words he would’ve exchanged with Matt, given the opportunity. But Erik was prohibited from having any contact as the case against him wound its way through the court system.
But the guilt had eaten away at Matt for the last 48 months, and the only thing he could do was send a condolence card. On October 1, 2008, the day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, he bought one at a grocery store, and as he made his way back to his car, he saw Erik walking toward him.
“He was just bawling,” Erik recalled. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.”
Enough time had passed by then for Erik to come to an acceptance of sorts, and an understanding that the accident had been just that — a horrible and unintended consequence of Matt’s actions. And he realized that he needed to extend forgiveness, as much for himself as for Matt.
In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.
Erik even used that compassion in court. Enough lives had already been ruined, and he didn’t see the point in ruining any more. At Matt’s sentencing, he pleaded for leniency. In the end, he got off lightly, simply paying a fine and doing community service.
But Erik’s compassion went even further. Not long after that encounter in the parking lot, the two men started meeting regularly to share meals and talk, even attend church together. Their bond has only deepened in the last decade, which has seen Matt get married and start a family of his own…
And Erik has done the same.
Erik’s since moved to Florida, but they still manage to get together, especially during the holidays. Faith, now 12, loves spending time with Erik’s children, and seeing them playing together always brings a smile to Matt’s face.
“And now it’s our story together. It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”
That 2006 accident ended the lives of June and her and Erik’s unborn son, and that’s a tragedy. But it was also the beginning of what would become one of the strongest friendships either man has ever experienced, and that wouldn’t be possible if Erik hadn’t been able to find forgiveness in his heart.
We’ve all been forgiven for various trespasses during our lives, and this is a wonderful reminder to extend that same grace to others. Watch the video below to hear more about this remarkable story and share to warm hearts.
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