Originally published December 17, 2012
It’s a cold, February night on a nearly deserted Texas highway. A family of four and their friend and business associate are traveling to San Antonio for a brief vacation, a weekend of R & R. At the wheel is a conscientious but inexperienced teenaged driver. This part of Texas does not see much snow, but there is ice. On this night it is black ice that appears, as such things do, without warning. Even experienced drivers with great skill find it difficult to maintain or regain control once a vehicle loses traction, especially at highway speeds, and however moderate that speed may be. For a young lady just short of her 17th birthday it was a situation completely beyond her expertise.
The Suburban left the road and rolled somewhere between one and three times. Hard to count when you are bouncing around or unconscious. Later investigation by police and medical teams indicated that she had died on impact with the steering wheel; probably before the vehicle even left the road. Her small, slim body was ripped from the seatbelt and thrown through the window. As it happens, I was in that vehicle. Regaining consciousness I realized that her parents were outside of the car with her, responding with whatever emergency training they had, refusing to believe what they most likely already knew. In the car with me was her ten year old sister. Crawling back into the seat I reached for her and held her until help arrived. Luckily, a ranch family not quite ready for bed heard the crash and saw the rolling vehicle. Time was meaningless but it didn’t seem all that long before the scene was flooded with helping hands and emergency vehicles.
The loss of a child is a pain so unlike anything else. This was not my child, but she was part of a tangle of emotionally intense relationships I had with her family. She knew me well enough to trust me in time of urgency. Something she did not give lightly. If her mother was not available, it was me that she would call. No, she was not my child; but the grief was still overwhelming. It seemed as though we remaining four had become scuba divers. Sounds, sights, feelings seemed muffled somehow. Her mother wrote poetry. Beautiful, heart wrenching poetry. Her father closed up on himself. Her confused little sister became uncertain of her place in a family torn into ever smaller pieces. The consequences reached far, far into the future. At the time we were lucky to have a church family prepared to envelop us. There were always quiet people near us to answer the phone, answer the door, organize food, ferry people to and from the airport, the doctor, and the funeral home. Quiet, gentle angels that kept the world at bay until we could, bit by bit manage to communicate once more with the land of the living. We huddled together in our own private hell, holding the broken pieces close until they started to heal.
What would it mean to go through such hell in a fish bowl? How would it feel to have people battling over the whys and wherefores before you even knew if your child was among those who had not survived? How would it feel to become everybody’s symbol of whatever agenda they needed to push before you even had time to internalize what had happened? How would it feel to hear so many squabbling over causes and small bits of inaccuracies like vultures? Of what importance are the reassurances that someone, somewhere isn’t going to let it happen again? How shattering a “body count,” as if your child was nothing more than a bag to be counted. With your life in pieces around you, you are not prepared to care about the next time. For you it is already too late. All this before you had time to somehow stop the rush in your mind of all the things that your child would never be or do. Mute with hurt and pain, how could you shout loud enough to tell them all to be still? “Let me breathe, please just let me learn to breathe again.”
As an author I am currently involved in research for a book about Job. Many of my feelings on the book do not fit within the boundaries of common interpretations. There are messages I see and feel that I do not find in the literature. If there are hints they are brief puffs in the wind. I believe that one of these messages is the real error of Job’s friends. For the last few days we have been very much like them. Too busy looking for whys and how comes and not nearly busy enough supporting those in pain.
As an active participant in a number of groups and a growing reach of friends and fans on Facebook, I have seen anger, despair, raw emotion and bitterness ripple through the community like a digital tsunami. However, now is not the time to shout from the treetops, jump up and down and announce our own surefire way to fix the problem. That time will come but something MUST come first. First, you must heal. Not all at once and not completely; but you must at least climb out of the “scuba dive” and be a reasoning, thinking individual again. Someone prepared to enter into effective debate, discuss alternatives, check facts, understand more about the who, how, and when. Now is the time to heal.
Part of the raging argument is related to what God’s part may or may not have been in all of this. I want to point out why I think Job’s friends so seriously missed the boat. It is something that is found in sacred texts around the world. The way we heal is to love one another. The way we heal is to support each other in our suffering; to provide for the widowed, the orphan, those who need, and those who hurt. Some will tell you that this is not part of the Old Testament thundering God of the Hebrews. I have news; it is.
In Leviticus 19:18, we find, “You must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.” (Jerusalem Bible) Jesus, you see, was quoting scripture. Throughout the Old Testament some of the things that upset the prophets the most were not the tiny little sins and indiscretions, it was the treatment of widows and orphans. It was the sacrifice of human lives (which may or may not have included children) and the treatment of the poor and suffering.
Jesus himself tells us that the two most important commandments are to love God and love your neighbor–as yourself. He even says that all the law and the prophets hang on these.
Many will be familiar with pieces at least of I Corinthians 13: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. … If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.” (Jerusalem Bible)
In the first part of Revelations where Christ addresses the seven churches, His complaint against the church at Ephesus was, “you have less love now than you used to.”
Whether or not we come to an understanding of why things happen, whether or not we find in ourselves some faith in some hovering over-protective Sentient Being keeping watch over us, or whether or not we are driven from any faith at all because we cannot tolerate a universe with any Supreme Being that won’t protect us from our own evils great and small; we must love one another. We must find support and concern for each other. We must be the Good Samaritan, the person who shares burdens, the one who answers phones, warms up meals.
There will be a time when we must, as a nation, address the systemic causes of violence in our streets and in our homes. Not just for those who died thinking they were safe in their schools and neighborhoods, but also for those who walk our streets each night not knowing if they will make it home safe just one more time. There will be a time; but first, we must heal. First we must envelop our wounded. Let them learn to breathe again.
If you want to make that commitment an active one, I suggest you research benefits for the families. Groups or charities that can be checked out that are helping with expenses suddenly incurred and not expected. This is, evidently, a neighborhood of financial stability. That security can go out the window quickly when you suddenly must pay for plane tickets, funerals, or time off work beyond bereavement leave (usually about 5 days). Some of the families and perhaps some of the remaining students are sure to incur counseling costs. Maybe you can physically travel to the town and protect the families from media and harassment by being part of a human shield. Do something creative, something healing, something that reaches out and touches. First, find peace and learn to breathe again.