Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Whisper of a Name



I could faintly hear the whisper of a name some place deep inside my mind. I was remembering my friend, Rob, and he was the first person "my age" who died that I had known. We had attended the same church and high school since the 7th grade. We sort of liked each other in the 9th grade. I decided that I would not think about that for a long time.

However, I did think about Rob's mother. Wasn’t she a widow? Maybe she was the first widow I had ever known. We had never talked about Rob’s dad, but somehow it seemed that I had just accepted the fact that she was a widow. With a gentle sadness, she carried the responsibility of raising two teenage boys alone. It draped softly like a sheer scarf around her shoulders which clearly carried a weight too heavy to bear alone.

She had great faith, though, and so she was not alone in a spiritual sense. It never seemed to bother her that she often sat alone in worship services. Whenever I saw her driving the boys to church, I never thought how hard it must have been for her to be always alone. If she ever complained, I didn’t know about it. If she ever cried, no one could tell it from the way she carried herself. There was a slight curve in the middle of her back that betrayed the supernatural strength that only God could have given to her.

Why had I been so drawn to study her from a quiet distance? As a teenager, I’m sure I was paying no attention to many of the things going on around me. Like my friends, I was completely self-absorbed in the style of new clothes, the latest lip-gloss flavor, and wondering if Rob could tell that I was totally distracted by his presence in the room.

It was the late ‘60s and I was lost in the “sounds of silence” as we hit out in the chapel of the church building on Sunday afternoons. Like most church youth groups, we had our own agenda when we arrived early for youth choir rehearsal. And it didn’t have anything to do with singing in the evening worship service. It was all about finding a way to elude the adult youth leaders so we could sneak a few minutes alone with our closest friends. As soon as we could steal away from all the adult authorities in our lives, we were totally involved in the latest gossip about “who liked who” and who we had seen at the movie theater or fast food restaurant on Saturday night.

We were just a little too young to grasp the world-changing events of Woodstock or Kent State, but we heard about them on the radio and watched with disbelief on the evening news. We knew that adult society was in chaos, but we were just beginning to experiment with the social graces of early adolescence. While we didn’t know any real “hippies” in our town, we did rush to the mall to buy leather-fringed jackets. I still can recall the memory of a hazy Saturday afternoon spent walking to the mall from a friend’s house.

There were six of us walking through summer grass along the side of the busy street leading to the familiar department stores. I didn’t actually know anyone from England, but I so wanted to wear whatever style was the latest import from the land of the Beatles. Nothing tasted sweeter than Bonnie Bell’s latest lip gloss, which was just another variation on frosted pink! I can still see myself in that light brown leather jacket with six-inch fringe hanging in every direction. I only recall wearing it that one time and being aware of the smoky smell of fresh animal skin that was so intoxicating to a very impressionable teenage girl.

We laughed and sang along to “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” on the portable radio that Rob was carrying on his shoulder. I wished that I had a brother like Rob. At least I wished that when I wasn’t wishing that he would ask me to be his girlfriend. I was always torn between wanting to like him and loving him like the brother. He was my first kiss, although I knew I probably wasn’t his. With sparkling blue eyes and wild reddish brown hair, he seemed to know more about life than anyone else in my sheltered world.

Life remained fairly innocent through high school, but soon my care-free world would be shattered. I had come home for summer break at the end of my freshman year at college. I was no longer the same na├»ve’ teenage girl who had loved singing in youth choir at church. My perfect world was being stretched by living away from home for the first time. It was a tough adjustment for me and I had not handled it as quite as well as I should have.

For the first time in my life, I had taken a job out in the real world of workday stress. It was just a temporary job for the summer, but it was a big first step into the adult world for me. I played along with the other employees as if I were in the game for life. They must have been amused by my eagerness to please the managers and annoyed that I thought I had fully arrived all at the same time. I did what ever my middle-aged counterparts did. I took breaks with them, joined in their discussions, and worked hard at fitting in with the others in the department.

One of the executives was a man that I had known from church. His son and daughter had become involved in our youth group when they moved into town during my junior year in high school. The boy was my age, and the girl was two years younger. They moved in like they owned the place, and none of us liked either of them from the start. We didn’t like their parents either. We didn’t know why except that we were a typically tight little click of friends and they had invaded our space. The parents had joined in the church culture in the same way the kids had staked claim in the youth group. They were just a little too forceful for the gentile southern manners of our town.

It was during the afternoon break at the office when he walked up to me in the company's cafeteria line. I didn’t want to be rude, but speaking to him was just a matter of courteous behavior lacking any form of sincerity. In his usual cold manner he engaged me in a conversation that sent me reeling in my already fragile world.

I turned to look up at this dark-suited man as if I were seeing him for the first time. What did he just say to me? How dare he speak to me about my friend-like-a-brother with such disrespect! He didn’t even know Rob. Even his two annoying teenage intruders didn’t really know Rob.  “You don’t even know him,” I challenged, “and I doubt that anything you’ve said is true!” 

He was not my boss, and I didn’t care that he was one of the executives. He had just informed me of the most heart-breaking news that I could remember hearing at this point in my life. Coldly, he had asked, “Have you heard that Rob over-dosed last night?” My mind put aside the idea of Rob having overdosed. Why did this man imply that Rob was taking any type of drugs, prescriptions or otherwise? 

I left the cafeteria tray on the sterile steel bars and ran from the building without even going back to my desk. I was angry with this insensitive man for the tone he used when he spoke the words “over-dosed last night.” It was never confirmed whether it was an accidental combination of prescription drugs, or something more troubling.

Immediately, I went to Rob's house where I found many of his mother's friends and family had gathered to comfort her. I watched them as if I were just a silent observer. The only time I cried was when his mother hugged me and thanked me for coming by to see her.  

There seemed to be nothing left to say about the heart-breaking death of my young friend. Summer passed quickly and I was back in college.  Youth had lost its innocence and life would never be the same again. I felt that there were no good answers, and my mind found it easier to ignore the questions in my heart.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
I Corinthians 13:12


Lord, We don't understand so many things that happen in our lives. The death of a young friend is certainly hard to accept. Circumstances really don't matter in the midst of grief. What matters is that You can help us through the sorrow, and some day we will have the answers that we need. Some day we will see our friends and family in Heaven. Even more wonderful is Your promise that there we will also meet You face to face. What a glorious day that will be! In Jesus' name, Amen.

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