Ever wake up somewhere and wonder how you got there?
I recently woke up at an ocean resort in sunny Puerto Rico. As nice as that sounds, I wasn't there for pleasure.
I was on an errand for a friend. My task was to deliver a speech at an American Bar Association conference. My topic was the art of storytelling.
The crazy thing is that a little over a week ago I had no plans to be in Puerto Rico. No plane ticket. No idea I'd be addressing a couple hundred lawyers. I was looking forward to a rare, lazy summer weekend with family before a long business trip out West.
But life serves up the unexpected. Sometimes we are blindsided by things we didn't see coming. Then comes confusion, desperation and numbness.
I have a best friend who feels all of those things right now. His name is Rob Wallace, and he is one of the best writers in network television today. He's won nine Emmys. That's why the American Bar Association originally approached him to speak to its members, not me.
But Rob recently lost his daughter Lindsay. She did not have cancer. She was not in a car accident. Lindsay died alone in a room in a New Jersey shoreline community. It was a picture-perfect summer day. She was 25.
Now you know why I went to Puerto Rico and Rob did not.
When Lindsay was growing up, Rob was climbing his way to the top of network television as a senior producer at ABC's 20/20. But his world revolved around his little girl. He took her on shoots all over the world, often taking time out for excursions that involved animals. Lindsay was an animal lover with a soft heart and a gentle touch. She inherited her soft heart and gentle touch from her father.
Rob asked me to dedicate my speech in Puerto Rico to Lindsay. Before heading to the convention hall, I figured I'd clear my head with an early morning run on the beach. I didn't get far, though. I was running to my favorite Van Morrison song and thinking of Rob when these familiar lines took the wind right out of me.
I've been traveling a hard road …
I've been carrying my heavy load,
Waiting for the light to come shining through.
The heaviest load for a parent is losing a child, even if that child is an adult. It's incomprehensible when a child dies from what Neil Diamond called "an emptiness deep inside." In her novel "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton created a character that goes through life "dead inside," someone who is "a man without a calling."
There are few things more debilitating to the human soul than the feeling of purposelessness. Despite how hard some parents try, not every child finds her calling. For some, the sadness at some point becomes unbearable. And the unthinkable happens.
As soon as Rob called me with the tragic news, I cleared my calendar, packed my bag and jumped in the car for the six-hour drive to Jersey for the funeral. Cruising up the Garden State Parkway I thought about a girl I used to know. Her name was Debbie. When I was a teenager I had a crush on her. All the boys at my church did. She had the prettiest face in our congregation.
I was too shy to ask her to be my girlfriend. Instead, I was just her friend. We went to our first rock concert together in 1979 — a summer jam at the Yale Bowl in New Haven featuring The Cars, Eddie Money, Dave Mason and The Beach Boys. It was over 90 degrees that day and we danced to "Surfin' U.S.A." as the New Haven Fire Department dowsed us with fire hoses. We were drenched, tanned and happy. Life was so innocent.
Then we grew up. Deb ended up marrying and having a family. Then one day Deb's parents telephoned me out of the blue and asked me to deliver her eulogy. She had been found alone in a cheap motel room with a bunch of pills, not far from where we grew up. The girl with the prettiest face and the most caring parents had lost her desire to live.
This happens a lot more than we want to admit. And no family is immune from depression. I'm personally familiar with three people who have lost family members to depression in the past couple months. Under these circumstances no one knows what to say to the surviving family members.
Meantime, family members can't help blaming themselves. I should have done more. I should have been there.
But the people I know who have gone through this nightmare were there and had done more than can be expected. Then they end up living with the stigma.
If you are a parent who loses a child this way, you can't help wondering what other people are wondering. More pain.
When I reached Rob's house in New Jersey the afternoon before Lindsay's funeral, I wrapped my arms around a man I love like a brother. We stood there in the doorway to his home, silent, holding each other. The only thing I said is, "I love you."
Ultimately, we turn to God when we are desperate. We hope he's real. We hope there is an afterlife. Suddenly we want this more than we want anything. We become beggars.
C.S. Lewis experienced this after losing his wife to cancer. "You never know how much you believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you," he wrote. "It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice."
The rope, of course, is God.
Right after Lindsay passed, Rob said goodbye to her on Facebook. The last thing he said to her was: "I promise that you will be in my thoughts in quiet moments for the rest of my days. And I will see you again in heaven."
Rob, I know you're reading this. I don't have all the answers. But I believe in heaven, too. I believe the selfless way you've lived your life makes you a shoe-in to end up there. And when you arrive I believe you'll see Lindsay again. I'm honored to be your friend.
Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.
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