Words that she first remembered hearing as a preschool youngster brought her strength and perspective at the worst and most inexplicable time of her life.
Toni Nunemaker’s mom told her the biblical story of Jesus’ death — and some of his last words on the cross to those who killed him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The nearly unfathomable image stuck: meeting violence with love.
“I figured if God was in the forgiveness business, then I would have to be (forgiving),” said Nunemaker, a Columbus native.
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All that came rushing back Aug. 4, 2014, when Nunemaker’s 9-year-old grandson, Connor Verkerke, was brutally stabbed in the back and killed by an unbalanced 12-year-old peer on a playground just around the corner from Connor’s home.
The 12-year-old was found guilty of first-degree murder, the youngest person in Kent County, Michigan, to receive such a sentence. He was ordered to live in a juvenile detention facility until he turns 21, at which time his court case will be reevaluated, according to reports broadcast by WZZM television in Grand Rapids.
That story — and ultimately, one of compassion and forgiveness toward the young assailant and his family — constitutes part of the theme of Nunemaker’s book, “Hey Nana! Connor’s Story of Love.” The author will sign copies during an appearance at a new Signature Saturdays event beginning this weekend at Viewpoint Books in Columbus.
“Our goal is to let the community meet some of our authors, and give authors a chance to speak directly to people who really want to read,” Viewpoint owner Beth Stroh said.
Nunemaker left Columbus in 1979 to move to Michigan. Today, she lives in Kentwood, where her grandson was killed, and teaches music at a school in nearby Grand Rapids. News of the recently published book landed her on Michigan TV stations and in a lengthy New York Post story earlier this year.
The title captures her grandson’s regular style of impromptu chatter with her. Plus, the book tells of how Connor had become enthralled with the peace-loving ways of the Dalai Lama only months before he died. In fact, the author and the youngster studied the spiritual leader’s wisdom together.
“Yes, certainly, a horrible thing happened,” Nunemaker said during a telephone interview from her home. “But anytime a horrible thing happens, you ultimately still have a choice on how to respond to what happens.”
The writer includes searingly painful details — how Connor ultimately made it to his home’s porch, where he collapsed; how she saw him after he died in the hospital, where she would repeat the words to him, “My baby, our baby, I love you so.”
For nearly each gut-wrenching scene, Nunemaker eventually rewards the reader with hard-won nuggets from her Christian faith, and how such an experience has altered her life and deepened her appreciation for it. She tells of becoming such friends with the offender’s struggling mother that she gives her money and also begins driving her every few weeks on a 220-mile round trip to see her son in the juvenile detention facility.
But later this year, she finally will meet with the young man, now age 15. Once so severely suicidal that he slept in a straightjacket, he now has decided to live. And he has told his family that he wants to apologize for what he did — and Nunemaker will tell him she already forgave him, just as Jesus modeled.
The author acknowledged she still emotionally hurts from time to time over her grandson’s death. One of those times surfaced recently at her one of her school’s choir concerts. Connor would have been a part of the vocal ensemble.
“The moment the choir began singing,” she said, “I began crying.”
Yet, in light of the book, Toni Nunemaker understands that her grandson’s voice is not missing. Now, with a message that love conquers all, it just might be speaking louder than ever.
What: New Signature Saturdays beginning this Saturday. Columbus native and Columbus High School graduate Toni Nunemaker will sign copies of her book, “Hey Nana! Connor’s Story of Love,” from 2 to 4 p.m. Also, local author Mason Engel will sign copies of his book, “2084: The Short Story Version” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: Viewpoint Books, Sixth and Washington streets in Columbus.
Information: Call 812-376-0778 or or visit viewpointbooks.com.