Sitting in the home of TJ and Rachel Johnston you immediately sense the vast amount of love this couple has for each other as well as their children. Pictures, notes and scripture passages adorn the walls. The Johnston home truly reflects their priorities — faith and family.
It is in the midst of this warm and loving environment, TJ and Rachel invite us to take a glimpse into a tragedy that changed their lives forever, a tragedy that seems too unreal to believe. Their precious daughter Madelyn was involved in a four-wheeler accident on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. In a moment, Madelyn went from living on this earth to living in heaven with Jesus.
Madelyn embraced life and lived it to the fullest. Her life was short by human standards, only 8 years, but rich by any standards. TJ and Rachel smile when given the opportunity to introduce you to their daughter. TJ shares, "Madelyn loved good food, fashion, art, the color pink, playing fast-pitched softball and, most of all, people. Nothing brought Madelyn more joy than building someone up and making them feel special."
Rachel recalls the letters that she and TJ received following Madelyn’s death. Several children expressed specific ways Madelyn impacted their lives. Madelyn stood up for children who were mistreated by others. She encouraged her friends to try new things even if they were afraid. She was clever, funny and thoughtful. She lit up a room. Madelyn was a caring person with an adventurous spirit. Rachel shares, "Madelyn was a natural born leader. She saw the best in others. Madelyn was a team player." Softball was Madelyn’s game. She was known as "Mad Dog," both on the field and off.
Madelyn was an exceptional student at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School. She settled for nothing less than perfection, always striving to make an "A." She was an accomplished writer, having an ability to effectively communicate her thoughts and feelings. Some of the greatest treasures that TJ and Rachel have are letters written by Madelyn. One letter that is especially meaningful was written four days before her death. They found this letter just days before Christmas.
Madelyn thrived in her role as a big sister to brother Sawyer, who recently turned 4. Sawyer adored her. Rachel shares that no one spent more time with Sawyer than Madelyn, willingly taking care of his needs. Sawyer called Madelyn "ma ma" and always wanted to please her. It was important to Madelyn to include Sawyer in her life. When she hit a home-run, Sawyer was the first person she wanted to "high-five."
Sawyer talks about Madelyn daily. He misses his sister. Often Sawyer goes into Madelyn’s room and plays with her farm animals and tea set, the exact toys they once played with together. Sawyer proudly carries Madelyn’s Bible to church. This is meaningful to TJ and Rachel because not long ago Sawyer struggled when he went to church. He did not want to be dropped off at his class. Madelyn helped Sawyer overcome his fears. Now, Sawyer willingly walks into church carrying Madelyn’s Bible.
In the months following the loss of Madelyn, TJ, Rachel and Sawyer have grieved and celebrated her life, both publicly and privately. The Johnston’s will be the first to tell you that every day is hard. With tear-filled eyes, Rachel shares how much she misses her daughter. "We feel the void every day. Her chair is empty. Her voice is missing. Going places without her feels lonesome. We are afraid that Sawyer will forget her."
Rachel goes on to talk about the fun times that she and Madelyn enjoyed. Activities like shopping at TJ Maxx, eating at PF Changs and organizing things around their home, provide Rachel with treasured memories. "We were becoming girlfriends, and I miss that. There is an emptiness in my heart. I have moments when it is hard to breathe."
TJ also tears up as he talks about his favorite moments with Madelyn. Daddy/daughter dates were a regular occurrence. Often TJ and Madelyn visited the fountain on the University of Central Arkansas campus. TJ drove Madelyn to school every morning. When asked what he misses the most about his time with Madelyn, TJ simply states, "I miss talking to her. She had a way of putting me in my place. She always brought out the best in me."
Rachel brags on TJ by saying, "Most fathers in TJ’s position would have regrets. TJ has no reason to have regrets. He was a hands-on dad. He knew the value of the daddy/daughter relationship. His relationship with Madelyn was a dream come true." In turn, TJ expresses his praise for Rachel. "One of the qualities I admire most in Rachel is her courage and thoughtfulness. As a homemaker, Rachel is essential to our family. She utilizes her talents daily and we are all better for it. She’s the best in our eyes and we adore her."
The Johnstons are committed to walking through this tragedy in a way that celebrates Madelyn’s legacy and provides a healthy environment for Sawyer to develop and grow. They attribute this resolve to their faith in God, the support of their Second Baptist Church family and the outpouring of love from their Conway community. "Our church and community rallied around us when we needed them the most. They met needs that we did not know we had. We were able to focus on grieving Madelyn’s loss as well as supporting one another," says Rachel.
A few days after Madelyn’s death, TJ and Rachel agreed on the best way to honor her life. Once again, Madelyn’s actions prior to her death confirmed their decision. TJ and Rachel thought about Madelyn’s love for her Second Baptist Church family. Madelyn was excited to see Second Baptist Church relocate to their property on Dave Ward Drive. TJ and Rachel remembered that two weeks prior to Madelyn’s death their small group took part in a prayer walk on the new property. The Johnstons, including Madelyn, prayed over every spot where a classroom would be built.
Following the prayer walk, Second Baptist hosted a groundbreaking ceremony. Members were asked to write a prayer that would be placed in a box and buried beneath the foundation of the new church building. This took place on Dec. 2, just 13 days prior to Madelyn’s death. When given the opportunity to write a prayer, Madelyn beautifully communicated the depth of her feelings.
Dr. Mark Dance, pastor of Second Baptist Church, found Madelyn’s prayer when he was preparing to officiate her funeral, and gave it to TJ and Rachel. They were so proud of their daughter and knew that this prayer would serve as Madelyn’s legacy. God gave her everything she needed. Amazingly, at the age of 8, she realized it.
TJ and Rachel talked to the staff members of Second Baptist Church. They requested that an account be set up in Madelyn’s name. This account provides a way for individuals to donate money to the relocation of Second Baptist Church in Madelyn’s honor. The money given will be used for the Children’s Ministry wing. TJ and Rachel were excited that a playground was planned as part of the new campus. A memorial in Madelyn’s memory will be placed on the playground. The playground will provide a fun and safe environment for the children of Conway, something that Madelyn would want especially for her brother, Sawyer. Donations to this account may be mailed to Second Baptist Church, 701 Polk St., Conway, AR 72032. Attn: Madelyn Johnston Fund.
When asked about their source of hope in the midst of this unbelievable tragedy, TJ and Rachel turn their thoughts to eternity. "Our hope is found in Jesus Christ. We know that Madelyn is in heaven. We know that we will see her again." Madelyn gave her life to Jesus in the summer of 2012. Madelyn’s faith in Jesus was unshakable. Rachel smiles as she states, "We never dreamed that our daughter’s life would teach us how to be the type of Christians that we long to be. We should have taught her. Instead, she teaches us."
TJ and Rachel are thankful for the people who willingly walk through this tragedy with them. On Easter Sunday they were reminded that they will not face their grief alone. Their small group at Second Baptist Church encouraged members to wear pink in Madelyn’s honor. TJ and Rachel were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love. They sat in the middle of a sea of pink. TJ states, "It feels good to know that other people love Madelyn and miss her too. Rachel and I hope that people will continue to talk about her and celebrate her life." Rachel concludes our time with one last thought, "Life is not certain. Do not take things for granted. Every moment is significant."