Thirty plus years has passed since our very brief encounter in the halls of Centauri High School. I was a young Deputy Sheriff working a ball game to make a few extra bucks, and you were a maybe 16 year old cheer leader at the time.
Anyway, I remember I’d gone outside the school to do a walk through of the parking lot, and as I came in you were standing there in your uniform. You caught me by surprise standing in the hall, sticking out your hand and introducing yourself and saying, “I want to thank you for trying to save my brother’s life.”
To this day, I don’t remember what I said. I think it was something vague
about I’m sorry I couldn’t, but truthfully, I didn’t know what to say. Loss is never easy, especially what seems a senseless loss. It made no sense he’d be taken in something as stupid as a traffic accident, and I’m sure you’ve spent years wondering what that was about and if his life was wasted.
I assure you, his life wasn’t wasted, but to understand that, we have to pick up a conversation we should have had.
I have to admit, that for years I’d struggled with that night. I’ll never forget kneeling over him in the December cold, covered with his blood and trying to keep him alive. Logically, I know there was nothing more I could have done to save him. We could have had the best trauma hospital in the world right there, and with the worlds best trauma doctors, and I don’t think that would have saved him. There was simply too much damage.
But were not logical creatures. We live in our emotions. And for years I’ve
always wondered what I could have done better. That maybe if I had better training, or just done something different, he might be alive today.
So you can see the dilemma I created for myself. Logically, I knew there was nothing except trying that could be done. Emotionally, I couldn’t forgive myself that I didn’t save him.
An additionally, I’ve tried to figure that night out for years. I’ve grappled with it and the waste of it all.
A lot of time has gone by since the night he died and the night I met you in that halls of Centauri. I don’t know if you know this, but I recently finished my first novel. To deal with a trauma and pain of some of the incidents I recount, I’ve taken the incident and made it happen to a fictional character. In the course of writing the incident down, I found an answer.
Oddly, the answer has been tapping me on the shoulder for a long time.
I’d been asking God what that night was about, and now that I’ve grown as a Christian and gotten older and wiser in the world, I think I’ve got you an answer. It’s also taught me that the answer often comes from the most unexpected places. It taught me when you keep coming back to the same place, maybe your answer is right there.
The Bible tells us that God speaks out of the oddest places. Sometimes it’s a voice from the sky. Sometimes, it’s a still quiet voice. Other times, God speaks to us from the whirlwind, and on one rather uncomfortable occasion, He spoke to a man through a donkey.
In this case, He spoke through a TV show.
In an episode of the TV Show M*A*S*H*, a soldier is trying to come to grips with the death of his friend. Father Mulcahy quotes from the Book of Job, saying “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” (Job 38:4 NIV) He goes on to tell him the answer was to be found in the beauty and grandeur of the infinite.
Every time I saw that episode, I thought about the night your brother died. That should have been my first hint, but when I went to the Bible, and looked it up, the verse seemed more a rebuke than an attempt to comfort. Job had asked God why he did what he did, and it sounded to me like God had slapped him down by asking, “Who are you to question me?”
It always left me unsatisfied, resentful, and a little angry.
Then while writing that incident, my central character’s pastor asks him a question. “Will, how did that night change you?”
I never intended to ask that question in the story. I erased it, started again, and the same question appeared. I’d typed out the exact same question. I didn’t want the question there. But it belonged. It was an unexpected question, and it demanded a good answer.
I went back to the book of Job, reread verse 38:4 and remembered what Father Mulcahy had said. What God said wasn’t a rebuke. Instead, what he was saying is you’re asking the wrong question. Loss has nothing to do with the equation. What it has to do with is how we react to it and what comes out of it.
I realized my characters question demanded an answer, and I wasn’t looking at it from the right direction.
I had to ask how it changed me. Before that night, I was a Loser with a capitol L. I’d taken a degree in something I couldn’t get a job in, joined a police force, been injured in the line of duty, and fallen into the trap of fear and doubt. To make matters worse, I’d washed out of Air Force boot camp because I had too much pain, fear, and doubt to deal with.
I was at the bottom of the well with no way out.
That night transformed me.
I became someone people could count on. Your brother’s death pulled me out of the well of despair and made me a better police officer, detective, and human being. It was almost as if through dying, he saved me.
If it had never been for his death, I’d never have become the leader I am today. I would never have led troops in combat, and I’d never have gotten my act together.
So there’s one good thing that came out of it.
I’m thinking of a little four year old girl I knew at Ft. Riley, Kansas. She’s probably in her thirties now, and I hope life has been good to her. I was working with two young MPs in an attempt to run down a prowler. We were driving through the neighborhood when a call came through that an ambulance was needed at such and such a location. We were less than a block away, so I said, let’s go.
We get there to find her parents hysterical. Their four year old girl had stopped breathing. She still had a pulse, but try as hard as I could, I couldn’t get air down her. Using as much strength as I could, I finally started getting air in her lungs. The EMTs had to put a trach tube for her to get air.
So what has that got to do with your brothers death? If he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have crawled out of my depression. I wouldn’t have been there to save that little girl.
His death, changed the lives of three people; the little girl, and her parents.
That story is repeated time and again throughout my life.
What God was telling Job was you have to see the bigger picture. Your brother’s death was a pivotal moment in my life, and it in turn fueled the pivotal moment in a lot of peoples’ lives.
So it wasn’t wasted.
In fact, he lives on because of that night.
If we were able to jump in the time machine and go back to that encounter in the halls, I know that’s what I’d tell you now.
I hope and pray life has been good to you.
Hear the story of this night on “Our American Stories.”
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