The Empty Playroom

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Eli’s accident.  January 9, 2003 was the day that changed everything for our family.  One of my clearest memories of the last ten years is of the Empty Playroom.









Eli’s playroom was the main feature of the new home we moved into just 18 months before the accident.  It was big … 20 feet wide and 24 feet long.  It was bright and open with six windows and double doors leading in.  It was the attribute that sold us on the home.  It was the place where Eli and our family were making memories.  They were supposed to be good memories.

Several days after the accident, while Eli was still fighting for his life in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, I came home to take a shower and gather some belongings for the extended stay at the hospital.  That drive to our house was the first time that I was alone since the accident.  It served as time to process what was happening to me and my family.

I arrived home and the whole house was cold and silent.  As I walked up the steps and peered into the playroom, I took a mental snapshot that is forever etched into my mind.  It was like a ghost-room.  Eli had always cleaned up his toys after playing with them.  But now his toys were spread all over the room as if he had been raptured out of it.  It was an eerie feeling.  This was the last place he played before tragedy struck.  I didn’t know if he would ever return.  I didn’t know if my precious three-year-old son was coming home.  My son.  My only son.  This was OUR home.  We had more memories to make, but I knew that he might never come back again.

I’ll never forget that pain.

Twelve weeks later, Eli did come home.  Life has never returned to “normal”, but I’m forever grateful that the playroom didn’t remain empty.

Now 13-years-old, Eli continues to recover.  I am so thankful that I can talk to him, hug him, love on him, and help him to become the man that God wants him to be.

Whenever I start to get grumpy about anything in life, I remember the Empty Playroom. I remember that God saved my son’s life.  It’s hard to be grumpy when I think about that.


Do you have a painful experience that can be used for good? 

You may leave a comment below…

Please note: We reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kelly Combs

    Thank you for sharing, John. In answer to your question, I believe most people have a painful experience of some sort or another. How we choose to use it is up to us. I am so thankful that Jesus can give us the strength to carry on, and take those things that hurt us the most and use them for his glory. *AND* I look forward to heaven, were there will be no more pain or sadness – only complete restoration. God bless the Tillers in 2013!

    • John Tiller

      Well said, Kelly!

  • David Hawk

    Never thought about being “grumpy” and how it affects me and those around. I need to take a hard look at that. The blessings and struggles that your family has shared with us has been a wake up call to love our litttle ones every day for we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I do know that a young man by the name of Eli Tiller brings joy to so many people with his AMAZING smile and loving heart. John, you and Tricia have rough days and night but you shine so bright for Christ and I thank you for that. God IS using a tragedy to provide HOPE for so many. We are so blessed to have y’all to share the up and downs with us to know that there is hope in ALL things. The beautiful spirit that Eli has is something that all parents want for the children. Thanks be to God for a messy play room and not an empty one. Thanks for sharing, Eli you are the man

  • Dan Erickson

    I also try to share “hope after tragedy.” I have had some major crises in life and have learned that sharing them with others provides healing for myself and others. Nice blog.

    • John Tiller

      So true, Dan. I’m glad you’re sharing your story!

  • Dewayne

    Praying God continues to protect and bless your family. Our story is below and at Please share with whomever you feel it may be a blessing. Thank you.

    On October 20, 2005, I entered a hospital in Memphis Tennessee paralyzed from my chest down as a result of a neurological disorder called Transverse Myelitis. My spinal cord was inflamed and I became an overnight paraplegic. To say that this moment was a defining time in my life would be an understatement. I had a wife and two small children who were dependent on me. I was completely overwhelmed and totally unprepared for the journey we were about to take. Feeling lost, and not knowing where to turn, I did what most people do when the situation seems hopeless. I started to pray.

    As I lay flat on my back looking around at all of the tubes, hoses, and medical contraptions hooked up to me I quickly realized that things were going to be different than what I, as a very active 34 year old man was used to. I found out that all of the things I thought I had control of, were not really under my control at all. I was way too busy with a full time job, and running a business to stop and see that I was letting the important things in life slip away. My church life had all but passed away. No one I worked with would’ve said that I was a Christian. My children would lie in bed waiting for daddy to finish the mountain of paperwork in his office before he could come down to read a story and say prayers. The few times that I did make it downstairs they had already fallen fast asleep, still holding the book I had promised to read. All the while, I’m thinking that I was doing what was best for my family. You know, work hard, make a little money, get out, and stay out of debt, and secure my family’s future. The thing is I became so focused on all of this, that I failed to even notice I was letting what was most important slip away. God gave me this wonderful family and it was my job to be an example to them. I was supposed to be leading my family on a close walk with God. I was supposed to be witnessing to others by my words and actions. I was raised in a Christian household. I knew how to do this stuff but I chose to hide that witness. I didn’t want to be seen as “different” by my co-workers. I didn’t want the room to go quite when I walked in. Transverse Myelitis was not something God used to get my attention just out of the blue. I told my beautiful wife that first night we spent in the hospital that I knew better. He had been knocking on my door for a long time because I was driving the truck straight off the cliff as fast as it would go. You know how when a slight tap on the door just doesn’t work….God does the same thing you would do…He knocks a little louder. Just a few weeks prior to my T.M, I was injured in a motorcycle accident that broke a few ribs and punctured a lung. I will never forget the awful words that came out of my mouth as I was driven into the ground…..They were not words I’m proud of today. That accident could very well have paralyzed me right then or worse, but it didn’t. And I never… even… for a second, thought about that. I went right back into my routine…Church on Sunday, spitting and cussing Monday through Saturday. I’m not saying here that I think God will let bad things happen to folks to get their attention, but in my case I think it took something like T.M. to make me realize that, contrary to what I thought, “I” was not the one in control here. My unwillingness to heed God’s call is why I believe God penciled some downtime into my calendar. Once I couldn’t move, I began to realize how I came to be in the condition I was in… I saw a quote once that read “I heard about God on the way up, but I got to know Him on the way down.” This statement rang so true to me. I will never again forget what my responsibilities and priorities are while I am here.

    While this was a very tough time for my family, it was also one of the very best times in our lives. I had to make a lot of decisions and implement a lot of changes in my life during those times and they have had very positive effects on me and my family. My beautiful wife, wonderful son and daughter, and those around me will, from now on, have a husband, father and friend who understands that his main purpose in life is to teach them, train them, and lead them on path that will always be to Christ. I hope that our story will cause others to stop, even if just for a minute, to examine their lives. Make sure you are hitting your targets that are most important. Always be thankful for what you have, and remember that there is a lesson to be learned from every situation. It’s up to you to decide what that lesson will be. I am back up and walking for a reason I’m not sure why that is but I do know that one of the things I am supposed to be doing is sharing the story of God’s love, grace and mercy in my life with anyone who will listen.

    It is my prayer that our experience will somehow touch your heart and either cause, or rekindle a relationship with Christ Jesus. Maybe it will cause someone who never even considered that there may be a God to ask the question. We have become closer as a family in our walk with God as a result of this experience, but I know that God isn’t finished with us yet. I know that I am here today to write this letter because someone needed to hear this message. God loves all of us and has a divine plan for each of us. Take a minute to stop…..Take a minute to listen… Take a minute to search your heart. I know that God is calling, but it’s up to each of us to listen.