“As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” Rumi
“What profit is there in gaining the whole world if you lose or forfeit yourself in the process?” (Luke 9:25, Inclusive New Testament)
Bobby died that night on Avon Mountain. It was one day after he called me.
I’ll never forget August 15, 1979. It was hot and sultry, not uncommon for August in New England. I was at work at the Pepperidge Farm Mail Order Company in Clinton, Connecticut, going through a particularly grueling morning when, at 11:15, the receptionist buzzed me. My brother, Bobby, was on the line. “Ginge,” he said, his voice strained, “can we have lunch? Janna won’t see me.”
I cradled the phone in my neck, trying to sort through papers while I listened to my brother. My boss came into my office motioning that he needed me right away. “Bobby,” I said, “I’m not even eating lunch today. It’s crazy around here.”
“But I need to see you,” he said. Ten years my junior, Bobby treated me like a second mother and often turned to me for help. “How about next week? Can we meet then?” I repeated how impossible it would be to meet that day.
“Okay,” he said, sounding disappointed. “If you don’t have time, I’ll wait.” There was a pause. He said nothing for a moment. Then he said, “I really need to see you today. But if you don’t have time, I’ll wait.” I went about my day, thankful that I had time to do my work without interruption.
The next morning the phone rang at 5:30 a.m., startling me awake. Through my half asleep state, I heard my mother’s voice, breaking. “It’s about Bobby… He was killed last night by a drunk driver on Avon Mountain. Dad is on his way to identify his body at the morgue.”
An unexpected sound escaped from my mouth to voice the shock, the pain and yes, the denial. No, no, it can’t be true, I thought. These things don’t happen to us, they happen to other people. I was numb. The memory of the previous day’s conversation came flooding back to me in a rush–how could it be? I didn’t believe it. I started screaming. My screaming woke up my stepdaughter, Amanda, who ran in crying, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
I couldn’t stop screaming. Oddly, it occurred to me that I had never screamed like that before. It surprised me. I didn’t know I had it in me. Haphazard memories flooded in of Bobby’s life and our relationship. I was the oldest and he the youngest in a family of four children. As I was often left in charge when my parents went out of the house, I had been his second mother. So we had a bond that came from the lullabies I sang to him as I rocked him as a child, from the stories I read to him. He turned to me for emotional help often, as he had turned to me yesterday. And I hadn’t been available. It was the screaming of guilt, flying out from deep within.
I was unable to take in the enormity of Bobby’s life ending. A cold dread enveloped me as we drove the hour to my Grandfather Pop’s house that morning where the family gathered. We all sat there, alternately staring in disbelief and holding each other. We were crying, broken, bereft, but still not quite believing. The details of the accident started dribbling in—a drunken driver . . . 60 m.p.h . . . killed instantly.
The doorbell rang. It was my friend Pam with a casserole of macaroni and cheese, freshly baked from the oven. We hugged, wordless. I thanked her for the act of kindness. After I helped myself, I took a bite and found I couldn’t swallow it. How strange—my most rudimentary of human reflexes was suspended.
The phone calls came in from people far and wide. Loved ones, friends, acquaintances, Bobby’s friends . . . all unbelieving . . . could the worst be true?
Bad news travels fast.
People came from Bobby’s circle, which extended beyond our town to the medical school community where he had finished his first year that June. Friends came from Amherst College, his alma mater, and from Kingswood-Oxford School, a private school all four of us children had attended, and where Bobby had taught math and science during the two years before medical school.
My father came in after he had identified Bobby’s body. Now we knew it was true. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t cry either. He crumpled into Pop’s favorite chair. The silence dragged on. It was as if the rest of us weren’t there. He was in his own world and we were cut off from him.
I watched the second hand on Pop’s grandfather clock tick away, for hours it seemed, as people came and went to offer comfort and support. When would this day ever end? When it did, would I wake up and realize this was a bad dream?
I sleepwalked through the two days before the funeral. My son, Tad, came home after climbing Mt. Washington with his dad, Tom. My heart broke open again as I told them what had happened and saw how upset they were. On the day of the funeral, my friend, Susan, drove three hours to be there. She was standing in the church driveway as we drove in, her face full of compassion and concern. We didn’t say anything, we just held one another. Walking into the church, I was stunned by the numbers. The church held 2,000 people. So many were here mourning one so young.
The words the Episcopalian priest spoke that day were simple but challenging for me:
Our prayers this morning for Robert Burrough Swain III express to God our gratitude for this open, lovable, committed young man . . . But there is another intercession that I fear each of us must offer in a manner that best suits himself or herself. Intercession is needed for understanding and explanation of this tragic event. Why did this have to happen to Bobby? Is there no standard of fair play in life? Has God no control over the world that He so lovingly created? Has He no heart that can express itself in what for Him would be some insignificant event, but for us a catastrophe? Does life end just like that with nothing permanent or different left in the world because Bobby was here?
I can’t answer your questions. I can only ask the questions that I seek answers to. But they come crowding in upon us at a time like this—confusing, depressing, and endless questions. And I am sure that none of us can, this morning, find any answers to them. But this flood of questions can perhaps force us to take that leap of faith into the unknown, trusting our deepest emotions and convictions regarding the shape of that creative power that designed the universe.
I did not trust my deepest emotions and convictions about God.
I didn’t even know what a leap of faith was. When I left the church to go home after our family gathering, I had no resources, no previous experience to help me to cope with tragedy. I was stripped bare. Nothing in my belief system offered me comfort or solace. I didn’t have a personal relationship with God. I’d never felt so low. In the months ahead, the depression lasted, punctuated by loud outbursts and fits of crying. My family, my friends–everyone was estranged by my anger, even my mother. I sealed myself off from the world I had known.
In the next year I was to experience two more deaths–the deaths of my father and my marriage. I even contemplated suicide, angrily planning to drive my car into a cement abutment on Route 95. My mother called my therapist. I was angry with her for doing that, not even seeing how concerned she was. Either I was angry or I was crying. My anger erupted everywhere. And then there were the long moments of uncomfortable silence when I was alone in despair and it made me crazy. I took long walks on the beach near my home on the Connecticut shore, planning how fast I would drive my car into that cement abutment. I was convinced no one understood or cared about me.
I cut off all my relationships—nobody could approach me. I was hanging on to life by a thread–obsessed by the thought of death and angered by incredible loss.
In retrospect, I see now that this was the beginning of my spiritual journey. It was in this darkness, so bleak, this emptiness, so vast, where I began my search for a personal relationship with God.