I’ll never forget the sight. It was awful. Like a bad dream that I couldn’t make stop, nor wake up from, except that it was real.
I grew up in a small town. We had a railroad track that split the center of our village on Atlantic Street. You pretty much had to cross it no matter what, therefore having to wait on halted trains to change tracks was nothing new, except that something on this day seemed different. The line was longer. A few people were standing around.
It was a Sunday. A blue sky, cloudless, beautiful Sunday in December.
My mom was driving, and yet for some reason I got out of the car. I remember that I recognized one of my high school buddies standing at the tracks. As I walked toward the stopped train I saw a maroon colored, single cab truck lodged between the train and a large steel utility pole.
In the truck was a young man whom I loved with all my heart. He was a senior and I was a sophomore. He was larger than life to me. I’m sure I was more like a kid brother to him, but to me, he was my best friend. And he was dead.
The Sunday before my friend Jason went to Heaven, we were on a deer hunt. Because he was about to graduate in a few months, choosing a college was heavy on his mind. We were walking up a ruggedly steep hill on the way to some stands we’d hung high on a ridge. For some reason he stopped. You could see for miles. It was another cloudless, perfect Sunday.
He was bigger than me. Taller. Broad shoulders fit his linebacker build that carried 66, his jersey number. He put his arm around me, the sophomore, and said, “You know I’m going off to college in a few months. When I get to school, I want you to come see me. I want you to know that I love you and you mean a lot to me.”
I’d heard those words daily from my mom and dad. Hearing “I love you” from someone outside my family was different. Penetrating. I heard it differently, and I don’t really know why.
I had no idea that my friend Jason would go to Heaven the very next Sunday. In this moment as I write I can still see him standing with me on the upslope of that ridge. Which is why I suppose that his words, telling me how he felt about me, planted themselves into my marrow with vivid clarity to this very day.
Standing on those train tracks that awful, cloudless Sunday, I was clothed in uncertainty. Nothing made sense. I remember being dizzy.
What was certain, however, what was absolutely certain and doubtless was that I knew exactly how my friend felt about me. He had made sure of that.
I suppose that’s why in the months to come after the tragedy I made a vow to my very own heart. I promised myself that I would not let my love for those I truly loved live in the silence of my heart where it would remain unable to warm the souls of those nearest me.
My friend went to Heaven, but his boot print on this world stayed right here.
He did many things for me. He let me drive his truck. He let me hang out with his upperclassmen crew and treated me like one of them. He told me what he knew about girls. I told him what I knew about hunting.
Yet nothing he did, nothing he ever did could come close to what he did for me that day standing on a ridge on a deer hunt when he taught me that real men not only feel love, they express love.
And that matters. Because you just never know what next Sunday holds.
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. - 1 Peter 4:8