Fifty years is a long time. Enough time for a civil rights movement, a sexual revolution, a Cold War. Enough time for an institution or two to fade into relative obscurity, for a few givens to become anything but. Enough time for the Internet to become a thing. Easily. A few generations. Half a century.
Fifty years is a long time a long time to live with a hole in your soul.
His eyes mostly stay fixed on the floor as he tells me his story. And what a story. The kind of story that can send an existential shudder deep down into your bones. The kind of story that there aren’t really words for. Just slack-jawed, barely comprehending silence. The right response probably. Like Job’s miserable comforters before they got a few bright ideas in their heads about what they should say. As if words were the right kind of thing for a man in the ashes.
A man in the ashes.
In this case, a father in his late twenties. A four year old boy and his five year old sister. They walk with an older friend to the corner store on a warm spring day. Only a block away. They bend over to play in a puddle. A 7-Up truck driver looks in his mirror. Doesn’t see anything. Backs up.
Christ have mercy.
It’s hard to even fathom the pain, the grief, the rage. We don’t have the categories. It doesn’t compute. Life and death shouldn’t hinge on things like puddles and bending over at the wrong time and blind spots in truck mirrors. How can such things be? You instinctively think of your own kids. You awkwardly wedge your own story into someone else’s to try to understand. It’s hard to imagine how you would go on.
The truck driver couldn’t. Go on, that is. He committed suicide a few weeks later. He was a friend of the father, the man in the ashes. “I told him I didn’t blame him, but….”
Christ have… Well, you know.
Fifty years is a long time to live with that kind of a throbbing ache in your soul. A long time for “what if’s” and “wtf’s.” A long time to rage against God, the cosmos, or anyone else who might be listening. A long time to drown all the what ifs in a bottle. A long time to blame yourself. A long time to, against all odds, stay married. A long time to, against all odds, beat the bottle, to have a few more kids, to construct a life out of the ashes. A long time to, against all odds, cling to Christ. Another man who knew what it was to dwell in the ashes of sorrow.
“How have you done it?” I ask him. The question seems stupid the second it leaves my lips. As if “it” is an accomplishment, a finished task, a settled reality. As if losing two young children and a friend doesn’t break you in ways that never really heal. He smiles patiently before shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t know. I still think about them every day.”
He tells me about where they are buried. There are no gravestones, no names, no dates. Nothing physical to remember them by. “We couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I go back to the town but I don’t know exactly where they are.” He looks out the window.
Fifty years actually isn’t such long time at all. Some wounds stay fresh.