Last Wednesday, the mercury was forecast to hit highs peculiar to February, so I woke up early and climbed Cardigan while it was still dark.
I needed the quiet to prepare for a talk I was giving the following day at Cardigan Mountain School’s weekly chapel service. I was excited but nervous for this opportunity, and time alone on a mountain has always been my happy place – even more so, that day, with the conditions so rare.
Something Jesus once said had been percolating in my spirit for a while, and I am still trying to understand its full meaning.
After His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus spoke of His own impending death when He told the people, “Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)
I think perhaps He may also be speaking of us.
Finding meaning in Gordie’s death has been a hard pursuit at times, but there is a promise hidden in this verse: a seed is only a seed if it dies and is planted, followed by fruit.
I have been praying since his memorial service that my son’s death would draw others to this truth, the stunningly outrageous good news of the gospel. The hope that is available to us all.
I also feel compelled to share how one bad decision can wreck so many lives, even if that outcome was never the intention.
There are so many deaths we can die, every day.
Death to self, however, can be that harvest-producing seed; just look at Jesus.
Most days, I feel so overwhelmingly un-up to the task, but I try to remember He would never ask of us what He Himself was not willing to give.
Here’s the text of that chapel talk. Some of it is recycled from a past blog, some of it new.
I can’t bring myself to watch, so crazy-awkward, but if you felt like seeing the recording, here’s the link: Cardigan chapel.
Let the inner movement of your heart always be to love one another.
Live happily together in a spirit of harmony, and be as mindful of another’s worth as you are your own.
Do your best to live as everybody’s friend.
Never let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good. (Romans 12: 9, 16, 18, 21)
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18)
So I’d like to begin by saying that I wish I wasn’t up here today, telling you this story that I am about to tell. I wish I could be talking about something else, anything else.
But our theme this year – “WHO ARE WE” – compels me to consider what exactly has caused me to be the person I am today; we all have our stories, and this one is mine.
It’s a tough story to tell, but I think there is hope tucked inside, as well.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Nowak invited us to think about defining moments: times when we were forced to confront some event of consequence, to consider how it might have affected us, to perhaps even concede how it might have changed the very course of our lives.
That day for me began ordinarily enough.
It was May 28, 2016, and I had been shopping for a pull-out couch for the new tiny home I was about to move into. Returning successful from the store, I puttered around the kitchen of my soon-to-be-former home, mixing ingredients for granola and singing along to Pandora.
Owen, my youngest child and a Cardigan brother of yours from the class of 2015, was out mowing the lawn in the oppressive spring heat, a dutiful son just doing what needed to be done, however reluctantly.
Such pedestrian things preceded the event that was forever to separate what followed into my personal BEFORE and AFTER.
I cannot say what compelled me to look out the front window. We lived on a cul-de-sac, and the only people who ever drove by were delivery trucks or neighbors. The last time I had looked out, Owen was zig-zagging across the grass, earbuds in, shirtless and smiling; it would be the last time that face would smile for long time.
I watched as two police cruisers pulled up and parked on the street by our walkway; the officers were slowly exiting the vehicles, making their way to our front door. With everything in my heart, I willed them to go-away, go-away, go-away, praying that there had been some mistake, but, on some inscrutable level, knowing that I just knew.
I invited them in. What else could I do? Lawnmower abandoned, Owen trailed in behind.
At least they were kind when, terrified, I felt their officiousness was taking too maddingly long and I pleaded with them to just gettothepoint.
They admitted there had been an accident.
And does your oldest son Gordie (another Cardigan brother, 2010) have any distinguishing birthmarks? What is the color of his hair? What was he wearing when you saw him last?
The horror of these questions only later sank in, hours and a lifetime later: that his face was unrecognizable after colliding with a tree going close to 80 miles per hour.
In just a few moments, I had become the mother of a dead son and Owen had left childhood forever behind.
Gordie had spent his final day on earth at Holderness, playing alumni lacrosse and surrounded by people he loved. Later, the only part of him the funeral director would let me see or touch was his cold right arm.
He had been grumpy that last morning I saw him, the previous day.
It was uncharacteristic of him; but being asked to move a broken refrigerator out of our all-too-narrow front door when you’re late for work would bring out the crabby in anyone, so I teased and thanked and forgave and said good-bye for what turned out to be the last time.
It’s impossible to remember my last words to him, looking back; it had been what I had thought would be an unremarkable morning at the beginning of an unremarkable day at the end of an otherwise unremarkable week.
Oh, what I miss.
The way his green-eyed charm pressed my heart-walls until my chest ached. That laugh. Those dancy feet. The way he once carried a fallen maple leaf in pudgy toddler hand, blond hair dazzled by the wind of a coming winter.
How he had learned to skate. To write. To love. To drive.
I tried my best to be his mother, to guard his ways and warn and trust.
Put on your boots. Finish your carrots. Turn off your light. Text me when you get there.
I prayed: Father, guide him. Father, save him. Father, protect him. Please?
What was it about Gordie that drew people in? He was funny without trying, kind without guile, quick to lend or offer or grant or give.
He used blow through the front door trailed by a wake of friends, not ashamed to call me Momma or say I-love-you or drop a naughty word just to get a rise. I miss that.
The memory of driving home with him from Cardigan that first time, he abuzz with Athens and aqueducts and his roommate Allen. I couldn’t keep up; he had taken ownership of his education and I could not have been more pleased.
Thank you, teachers, who remember him now.
Smells. His favorite muffins. Old Spice, like my own dad when I was small. Hockey gear fresh with sweat.
I miss the obvious things, of course. Sound of voice and touch of hand. But the layers of miss…the not-yet and never-will-be. His never-bride and never-babies, the never-career and never-failures that I might have celebrated or counseled with him.
I have discovered it is possible to miss something that never was.
He never saw my new tiny house, my new black car, or me in my perfect new office at my perfect new job.
Good is relative now.
I miss that feeling I used to have, waking up, knowing he is, no matter where, no matter how many miles apart we might have been. The simple possibility of him.
I ponder heaven now, the where of it, what matter of distance separates him from me. I consider that perhaps it is measured in sighs and tears rather than feet or miles, at least from my end. That heaven is a place, that it is real, is what anchors my soul, remembering all that Jesus promised and clasping tight what-will-one-day-be when I’m not sure I can endure.
I miss and miss and miss and miss until my eyes ache now and my arms and my gut and my soul.
But I am reminded that the Bible says I am surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.
My green-eyed boy is one of these now, exhorting me to run with perseverance the race marked out (Hebrews 12:1) for me.
There is something about these backward roles, he-cheering-me now instead of me-cheering-him, that stops my heart.
Run, Momma, I can hear him whisper.
Don’t miss me too much.
Because these things that you miss are just benchmarks on your way back to me.
Before. And after.
This is my story. This is who I am now.
I am the one who every day must walk past a small bronze urn on a dresser that holds what once was my 200-pound, living-breathing man of a son.
I am the one who might hold a hug a little longer, especially if it’s a friend of his I haven’t seen in a while; sometimes I pull out my phone to tell him….only to remember, like a punch.
I am the teacher who some days wants to say won’t you just cut it out; don’t you know how lucky you are to be… sitting in class/dressing for dinner/going to practice… with your friends and the rest of your life ahead of you? Don’t you realize how blessed you are?
I am the driver who slows at accidents. No, I’m not one of those gawking people; I only want to see if I can in some way help or comfort…like the man I met at Gordie’s wake, who told me he had been the first to arrive at the scene and had held my son’s hand and spoke quietly to him as he died.
I am the mother whose children know that they can never, ever, under any circumstances, ever forget to text me when they get to wherever they are going.
I told you when I began that this was a tough story to tell, but here is where I find my hope.
Because the thing about going through the very worst that could happen to you is that it frees you in ways you could have never imagined or expected. My son’s death has made me bolder, softer (sometimes), less easy to offend.
I am no longer the one who is afraid of dying, because, as a believer in the resurrected Christ, His heaven, and the renewal of all things, there is no such thing as death – only life, life, and more life, expanding exponentially, multiplying itself out forever like an unbreakable rubber band.
This is who I am now, after my son’s accident.
And because this is chapel and because I care about all of you perhaps more than you might ever realize, this who-I-am-now would like to leave you with two ideas that I’d like to think might challenge you in some way.
The first one you may want to remember, perhaps soon, perhaps years from now, when you find yourself in a position where a critical decision, a before/after decision, must be made.
Please listen: what I am about to say may shock you – at least, in some ways, I hope it does – so please listen.
Because I’m telling you right now that you do not want to get behind the wheel of a 2-ton vehicle and drive it drunk into a tree, shattering the windshield, your face, and the lives of the ones you love. You do not want to do this to your momma, your brothers, your sisters, your dad or auntie or uncle or friends.
You do not want your parents to have to remember forever the sight of the impossible angles of the fender and broken wheel of your shattered car slumped in a dirty puddle of the towing service parking lot.
You do not want to make your mother dig through bloody glass to find your phone that will never ring for you again, to uncover any clue, something, anything, that would explain what you were doing and where you were going when you knew your sober friend had volunteered to be the designated driver.
You do not want to be the one whose birthday can only be celebrated now by posting pictures that only age year after endeless year, when you will grow no older than 22.
Gordie did not wake up that beautiful May morning and think, this is the day I am going to die.
He did not realize that the drinks he had had the night before his accident, playing cards with old friends, would still be coursing through his veins as he ran around in 95 degree heat on an astroturf field. He didn’t realize that the beer he shared at lunch with those same friends would push him over the legal limit.
He had just wanted to come home.
So please – make the decision now of who you will be then. Make it now, so that when the temptation comes – and it will come for all of you, one day – you will be able to hold up under it. Because some things, regrettably, cannot be undone.
Before I share the second thought I would like to challenge you with, I would like for you to look around.
[Thanks for your patience – I promise I am almost done.]
Please look to the right of you. Look to the left.
Maybe the person sitting next to you is your classmate, teammate, teacher, or friend. What I would like for you to think about is that you probably don’t know what that person next to you is facing on any given day.
You don’t know if they heard in a phone call last night that their parents are about to divorce; you don’t know if their mother is sick or that they didn’t play much in the game yesterday; you don’t know that they just got a D in French and their secondary school list just got a little shorter or that it took every nano of willpower for them just to get out of bed this morning.
What I would like you to know, however, is that you have the power to add weight to already heavily burdened shoulders, or to take it off.
Jesus once told the dusty crowds of Galilee, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
We have the unique opportunity, I might even argue obligation, to take up the yoke of our nearest brother or sister, to help them bear their weight, redistribute it, make the pulling easier – not pile on more and walk away.
To those of you who have been quietly doing this all along, steadily balancing your brothers’ burdens, I say thank you. You are noticed. Well done.
To others, who perhaps have not yet settled this is your heart, why not let this be your before and after moment?
Think of the potential in your one uplifting word, compassionate act, or insult withheld.
Perhaps it is time to posture your heart toward healing, not hurting.
I want to close by saying that I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I have become okay with this who-I-am now. My son’s death was a fragile gift that God has trusted me with – I carry it carefully, hoping that, by keeping it safe, I might be able to honor the years he lost with the ones I have left.
Gordie once sat where you are now. He spent his days tackling schoolwork, waitering, and Eaglebrook running backs with variable zeal. He certainly wasn’t perfect; he had his struggles, just as you have, just as we all have. Perhaps he might even want to be sitting here again, although, I believe, probably not. And this is why.
You may have noticed that when you entered the chapel today, it was not to the familiar light-sweet notes of Mrs. Perricone’s harp. Instead, the song you heard, called Where I Belong, (you’ll hear it again in a minute) is an anthem of sorts, a declaration I play to myself when I’m having a bad day here on this dirt sphere.
I like to remind myself that I am only here for a blink. That God has promised to prepare a place for His children; a place where, as Tolkien writes in Lord of the Rings, “everything sad will come untrue.” Sam to Gandolf
This world is not my home, nor was it Gordie’s.
Someday, I believe, I will see my son again; and we will have all of eternity to catch up.
Thank you for listening.
We cannot know the grief
That men may borrow;
We cannot see the souls
Storm-swept by sorrow;
But love can shine upon the way
Upon the wheel of pain so many weary lives are broken,
So may our love with tender words be spoken.
Let us be kind.