It looked like a normal letter from the middle school Max would be attending in the fall, but as I read a hollow rattle rolled through the page from the shaking of my hands. I dropped it on table, grabbed my keys and fled. This is my default action in the face of tragedy. I first learned this when I was about Max’s age.
We were driving to a cabin on the Lake of the Ozarks. An army of trees with shades of green that Crayola could never hope to box surrounded the road on both sides. Two yellow dotted lines marked the way to a perfect weekend. Just me, my dad, and a lake full of fish. I stared over the high dashboard looking for the sign that would mark our turnoff. This would begin our game of who can spot the water first.
A flash of movement was all I saw before the impact jerked me forward. My dad told me to stay, but I was so drawn to the front of our station wagon that I barely heard his words.
I had seen deer before, but never this close. Tears poured down my cheeks when I saw her lying there, struggling to breathe. Dad cursed and walked around to the back of the wagon. When he came back he had a small pistol in his hand.
“Get back in the car.”
For the second time that day I disobeyed my father. I still don’t know why, but I started running down the road from where we came. There was nowhere to go. We were miles from the last town we had passed through, but I could not stop. My legs pumped as hard as they could, trying to outrun the hurt that had suddenly flooded my heart. The sound of a single shot hit me like a wall and I fell to my knees sobbing.
As I drove that bang echoed again in my mind and my hands began to shake through their death grip on the steering wheel. Shame and fear turned my stomach into a knot that made it hard to breathe. I was supposed to be the strong one. I was supposed to have all the answers. I was supposed to make Max’s world safe. That’s what a good father does.
Max loved Harry Potter and I never quite understood his fascination with the books until that moment. How great would life be if you could whisper a magic word and watch your problems disappear. But that is not how the real world works. In this world it was my job to do that for him. As I drove I tried to think of good answers for the questions I knew my son would ask, but my mind would not let me escape the words that I had read.
…helping your child to understand this tragic event. The school will have grief counselors available for both parents and students…
A loud horn snapped my attention back to the road and I realized I had drifted into the lane to my left. My heart beat against my chest like an angry fist with only one wall in reach. No matter how hard I tried my mind would not stay focused on the road so I flipped on my blinker and pulled into the parking lot of a little strip mall. I pulled into an open space and turned off my car. I spotted a little coffee shop a few doors down and decided that sipping a hot beverage might be just the thing I needed to help release some of the pressure building inside me.
The bitter smell of coffee accosted me as soon as I opened the door. Even with the dark brown furniture and cream colored tile the shop was bright with all the natural light streaming in through the windows that filled the front.
I ordered the house blend and mixed in amounts of cream and sugar that would make a coffee aficionado cringe. There were only two others in the cafe and I chose a seat away from them. Stacks of used books filled a couple crates next to my seat. The gold lettering on the cover of one caught my eye and I picked it up.
The Bible felt heavy in my hands. I hoped that it was the weight of wisdom I felt and began flipping through the pages, glancing at the chapter headings as I went. When I read the heading “A Father Brings His Son To Jesus” I stopped and read. When I finished I had no greater insight into what to do or say with Max.
Frustrated, I looked around the cafe. Soon my eyes were locked onto the two others that sat there.
I watched them for what must have been half an hour, making no attempt to hide my attention. I couldn’t have looked away if I tried. The silver hair of the old man was all I could see over the top of the newspaper he held in front of him.
The boy sitting to his right bounced in the seat. His brown eyes were filled with curiosity as they searched the interior of the coffee shop. A book and an iPad were leaning on the leather armrest next to him, but they held no interest for him at the moment. I waited for the magic word that had captivated me twice before. I did not have to wait long.
Immediately, but without hurry, the old man folded his newspaper and laid it on his lap. His blue-grey eyes focused on his grandson, showing him that he had his complete attention.
“How do credit cards work?” the boy asked pointing to the register.
“On the back of each one is a small strip that the card reader reads when you pull it through.”
The grandpa did not lift his newspaper back up. Age must have taught him that there is rarely only one question in the mind of a child. Sitting quietly, as if in anticipation for the sun just before dawn, he waited for the next question to rise out of his grandson.
“So how does it know whose card it is?”
“Well the strip is actually a whole bunch of little pieces of iron embedded underneath plastic. Each piece can be magnetized with either a positive or a negative charge. You know how magnets have different charges right?” He paused to acknowledge a headshake before continuing. “So the order of the charges in all those little pieces acts like a code…”
I had no fear of being caught staring because the old man had devoted his full attention to the boy. He was gentle with each answer he supplied, careful to give knowledge without robbing him of the wonder that filled the boy’s world.
He was only a few years younger Max. These boys were getting to the age where life gets complicated. The lines of right and wrong had been blurred beyond recognition by a million voices shouting a million different messages. His friends at school were telling him one thing, T.V. another; advertisements, video games, music, they all had something to say. I felt like my voice was starting to get lost in all the rest and I had no idea how to fix it.
The Bible still sat open on my lap. When I looked back down the words jumped off the page.
So they brought the boy. But when the evil spirit saw Jesus, it threw the child into a violent convulsion, and he fell to the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth.
“How long has this been happening?” Jesus asked the boy’s father.
He replied, “Since he was a little boy. The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
“What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that the crowd of onlookers was growing, he rebuked the evil spirit. “Listen, you spirit that makes this boy unable to hear and speak,” he said. “I command you to come out of this child and never enter him again!”
Then the spirit screamed and threw the boy into another violent convulsion and left him. The boy appeared to be dead. A murmur ran through the crowd as people said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him to his feet, and he stood up.
I knew exactly how that father felt. My mind jumped back to the letter. Why would a twelve-year-old child commit suicide? And how do I make sure that Max will never do the same? It seemed like the plague of suicide was sweeping through our country. We had a whole generation of kids throwing themselves into the fire. The thought of Max being one of them terrified me.
The words I had just read shouted louder than all the rest in my mind.
“Listen, you spirit that makes this boy unable to hear and speak…”
A flash of truth revealed something that had been hidden in the darkness of my understanding. The father saw the problem as the seizures, but Jesus didn’t say anything about those. He saw the root of the problem was something else.
This single idea was like a pebble that started an avalanche of thoughts. Maybe we had been looking at it all wrong. Maybe it wasn’t only about bullying or depression. How many suicides were rooted in a loss of communication? Teens who felt like no one was listening to them… Their voices felt lost in all the noise that fought for attention. If they were bullied or struggled with a deep insecurity and couldn’t share that…
I looked back up and saw that the boy had found his way into his grandpa’s lap. A smile suddenly spread across my lips at the wisdom of the old man. That boy would never be ignored as long as they were together. He had found his magic word. It was “Grandpa”.
I imagined that brown-eyed boy years down the road. With all the voices of the world screaming out for his attention, who would he listen to? The answer seemed so simple now. The one who had listened to him.
After closing the Bible and returning it to the stack I walked over to the old man and told him thank you. He never asked why. Maybe he knew it didn’t matter. He just smiled and gave me a nod.
As I left I heard the boy ask, “Who was that grandpa?”
I didn’t have to turn to know that he would give the boy his full attention when he answered.
On the way home I thought about how stupid I had been with Max. I assumed that I needed to shout louder to be heard. Turns out I needed to be quiet. Max could actually have his own magic word and I was determined to make sure that it would be “Dad”.
Copyright © 2013 Adam Drake
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the chapter “He Expressed Himself” in Laurie Beth Jone’s amazing book Jesus, CEO. There is great wisdom in it.