When ‘for better or worse’ are more than words

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story that has so haunted me like today’s Star Tribune story of Jon Markle and his wife Mandy Markle, whose daughter drowned in Lake Minnetonka when Jon, who’d had a few drinks, decided it would be fun to drive on the ice. The girl was just 9 months old.

It reinforced that we’re often so wrong on the internet, with our instinct to pull out the pitchforks and judge others. It’s easy; so easy. When a judge orders a man to make 100 speeches about drinking and driving, it seems lenient. So lenient. We don’t have the benefit of knowing much.

Come up with a tougher criminal sentence than living with this image, as reporter Mary Lynn Smith described.

The first time Jon dove back into the submerged car, Tabitha’s face was barely above the water. Her car seat was facing the rear. Jon yanked on the handle to release the seat from its base, but it wouldn’t budge. He yanked again and again as water filled the car.

“It wasn’t long before she was under water,” Jon recalled.

When he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he surfaced, inhaled the cold air and dove back to try again.

It still wouldn’t release.

Jon surfaced a third time then dove again, pushing his way to the back of the SUV to unlatch the buckles across Tabitha’s waist and chest. He couldn’t free her.

“Her eyes were open, looking out the back window,” he said. “I saw bubbles from her nose and mouth.”

If we’re haunted by that, how horrible must Markle’s life be on a daily basis?

Smith tells the story of a number of heroes in this tragedy. The nearby homeowner, for example, who sees cars go through the ice so often, he keeps life jackets and a long pole in his garage. And a judge with compassion and wisdom.

But there is no more incredible courage than that shown by Markle’s wife.

Tabitha was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. There, as they cried and prayed in their vigil over their daughter, Jon turned to Mandy.

“If you want to leave me over this, I completely understand,” he said.

Mandy vowed to stay.

“I made a promise before God, family and friends,” she recalled saying. “I said, ‘I would love you for better or worse all the days of our lives. This is our worse and it can only get better from here.’ ”

“Every time I would start to feel anger, I would think of something else that would take me away from that,” Mandy tells Smith. “I would think about how he had been the one to try to get Tabitha out of the car. … I can’t imagine being that cold and having the strength to attempt that that many times.”

Markle didn’t stop at 100 speeches. He keeps speaking. Mandy stays in the car. She doesn’t want to ever be desensitized to it.

“I can never make amends for what I did,” Jon told Smith. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Hopefully, the rest of us, too.