Joshua Barnes’ favorite part of each day happened around midnight.
That’s when his 2-year-old son Daniel would sneak out of bed and come climb up into the bed between his father and his mother, Chelsea.
“He’d sprawl out and put his knee in my back,” Joshua said. “I sure wish I could have that knee in my back right now.”On Aug. 4, just two days before his third birthday, Daniel drowned while celebrating his birthday at his grandparents’ house in Rhome. Although Joshua will never feel Daniel’s little knee in his back again, he and Chelsea take comfort in knowing their little boy is in a better place. A watercolor painting Daniel did in Sunday school class, just two weeks before his death, proves it.
“We decided we’d ask all the kids in the class to paint a picture of what they thought heaven looked like,” said Paula Bruton, who teaches Sunday school at Chisholm Trail Baptist Church in Rhome. “The picture Daniel drew is like an angel scooping a little boy out of water, out of blue water.”
The only drawing Daniel had ever done in his life prior to that one was scribbles on the wall in the living room, or lines in a notebook. But on July 22, 2-year-old Daniel Barnes left behind an astonishing piece of artwork.
“It’s given the parents the faith and strength to get through this,” Bruton said.
Joshua looks at the painting every day, reliving that tragic afternoon, but also envisioning proof that his son glimpsed his eternal home.
“When I first saw it, you can distinctly see the angel’s wings,” Joshua said. “You can kind of see him cradled in here. The angel is pulling him out of the water. You can see the water pooling and stirring down here.”
The day of his birthday party, Daniel was wearing orange swim trunks and an orange shirt. The little boy being cradled by the angel in the painting is covered in orange strokes. The more he looked at the painting, the more details of the day became apparent.
“I’m the one that found him,” Joshua said. “And I jumped in after him. If you look over here on the edge you can see this body figure here. It looks like it’s jumping into the water with knees bent, kind of wet hair and the arms are up and curved.
“It happened at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. So the sun is down to the side in the painting. It’s not straight overhead.
“You can see the strokes on the top of (Daniel’s) head. The week before they had made crowns in church. This is that crown.”
Joshua recalls Daniel’s last day in this world.“He got to do everything he loved to do that day,” he said. “He got to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ He loves singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ He got to open all his gifts. He got to ride his new bicycle we got him. He got to swim. He loves swimming.
“He got to go down the slide. He would always say, ‘I’m done swimming, Daddy.’ But that day, after I helped him down the slide the last time he looked at me and said, ‘I’m done, Daddy.’ I looked at him and asked, ‘You’re done swimming?’ He just said, “I’m done, Daddy.'”
He helped Daniel out of the pool and out of his life jacket. Then Joshua saw Daniel walking up the stairs to a deck that’s above the pool.
“We were all outside,” Joshua said. “My wife Chelsea was inside with the baby feeding her, but everybody else was outside. There were kids still in the pool. I was still in the pool. My parents and in-laws were on the upper level.”
Joshua was playing a game in the pool with Daniel’s cousin when he suddenly noticed a bright color at the bottom of the other end of the pool.
“I looked around real fast and noticed that I didn’t see Daniel anywhere,” he said. “I was in shock. I was screaming ‘What it that!? What is that!?’
“I got out of the pool walked around and jumped in to get him. I didn’t close my eyes. I swooped in and got him. It took me a couple seconds for some reason to get around the diving board and get to Daniel. I didn’t know why. Now when I see the painting it’s like the angel was in front of me, holding me back, because it was time to take him.”
But that peace wasn’t there the moment it happened.
“I lost it,” he said. “I was screaming. Ripping the grass out. Screaming, ‘Take me Lord!’
“Once I gained composure I started praying. I probably prayed for an hour-and-a-half or two hours straight. I’d never prayed that long.”
His mom and mother-in-law performed CPR on Daniel until medics arrived and took Daniel to Wise Regional Health System in Decatur. Joshua continued praying at the hospital.
“They finally let me back there,” Joshua said. “They let me hold his hand. A nurse there told me to keep praying. It felt felt like a nightmare. My wife Chelsea said it was a nightmare.”Their pastor, Ron Graham from Chisholm Trail Baptist Church was there.
“This isn’t a nightmare,” he said. “A nightmare is something you wake up from. You gotta accept that this is real.'”“That first night Chelsea and I took a walk about 1 a.m.,” Joshua said. “We talked and cried and consoled each other. We knew the peace that God gave us has been inexplicable.
“That night we knew God had something prepared for us. We didn’t know what. We hadn’t seen the painting yet.”
They didn’t see the painting until a week later at the funeral, when their pastor handed it to them.
The other paintings from the class are what one would expect from pre-school aged kids and younger – unrecognizable blotches of colors smeared together with no clear image.
“He was the youngest in the class,” Joshua said. “The others were 4 and 5.”
But Daniel’s stood out like a lighthouse on rocky shore. Despite having no water to wash out the brushes, the colors on Daniel’s paintings are separated. The bronze angel with crisp wings cradles an orange-clad bundle over crystal blue water. A round yellow sun prepares to set in the background. And a yellow figure stands on the edge, like the silhouette of a rescuer about to dive into the pool.
“He was the one to tell the story exactly as it happened that day,” Joshua said. “He’s cradled in the angel’s wings. I’m jumping in after him. It’s kind of like the angel is holding me back.
“A lot of people don’t really experience God firsthand. I never really did. And for God to reveal what was going to happen, two weeks prior, in every single detail in the painting that my son did … Daniel physically painted it, but God guided his hand on every stroke.
“It reminded me that God is in control. It’s really helped us. I’ll get up every morning and look at it. I’ve shared it with a lot of people. Everybody who sees it is just blown away. Nobody can believe that someone who is 2 going on 3 is able to paint that.
“We have our hard times, but we know where our son is. And we know we’ll be with him one day. It puts things in perspective. It makes you know what is important, God and family.“I think God needed Daniel for a purpose. I guess I’ll never know until I’m in heaven. Through all things God makes it work to glorify His kingdom. And I already know of a couple people who have been saved from this story and seeing this painting.”
Joshua and Chelsea also have an 18-month old baby girl named Isabelle, and another daughter is due in May.
“We count it as a blessing because about the time Daniel passed away we learned that we had another one on the way,” Joshua said. “That’s helped us with all we’re going through, to have something else to lift our spirits. It was such a blessing from the Lord.”
This ordeal and the painting have strengthened their faith.
“My walk with God is every day now,” Joshua said. “Before, I was like most people, when in need, I’d exalt his name. It’s brought me and my family closer, and me and my family closer to God. It’s a big eye-opener for everybody.
It has even strengthened the bond between members of his church.
“The day everything happened,” Joshua said. “The day they pronounced him dead, we walked out and the whole hallway was filled with people from our church. The waiting room was overflowing. The church as a whole has gotten a lot closer.”
Last Sunday, after service, members of the church released green and red balloons attached with prayers in memory of Daniel. They floated away like spirits into a gray sky.
And although Joshua will always miss that little knee poking into his back, he and his wife have more than memories of Daniel to hold onto. They have a painting, detailing his last day on Earth, and what eternity holds.
“He brought a lot of joy to our lives, and looking back he got to do a lot of things for a kid who was just turning 3,” Joshua said.
Including creating a priceless work of art for his parents.