My oldest son is at the National Debate Tournament in Dallas this week with a dozen or so of his teammates. I dropped him off at Millard North High School on Saturday morning. Two white vans were being loaded up preparing to travel 650 miles to the south. He wished me an early Happy Father’s Day. I gave him a hug and kissed the side of his head. I never thought twice about his safety. I just looked forward to seeing him in a week.
Five girls were crowded in a car a few nights later. They were all students at Gretna High School—thirteen miles south and west of Millard North. It was just after 11:00 at night. The parents of the girls were looking forward to each of them returning home. In virtually the same exact spot as a horrible accident killing two Gretna boys thirteen years earlier, something terrible happened: The car veered off the road, hit a guard rail, and was consumed by fire. Four of the five girls died. The other was severely injured.
The story wasn’t supposed to end this way. More dances should have been danced. More games should have been played. More laughs. More hugs. Proms. Graduations. College. Exploring the world. Marriage. Kids. Living happily ever after. That is the script.
I don’t know if there were phone calls or knocks on the door of the families. As the parent of a teenager and an about-to-be teenager—I know there is no bigger nightmare than that ring or that knock. From Harrison Street to Schramm State Park. From Tiburon to McKenna Avenue to the Elkhorn River—phones texted and tweeted devastating news.
I have talked to a lot of people in the last day. Numb. Hurting. Empty. Heart-broken.
The Gretna School District encompasses a huge geographical area. The way their people know and care about each other and share their lives together—you would think they are all neighbors and family who live within a few blocks of each other. That is the way it should be. The school and the city have been through hardship before and they have persevered. In the next days, weeks, and months they will do this again with the same courage and solidarity as they did before.
I’m a pastor. I have done too many funerals of teenagers and young adults whose story didn’t end the way it was supposed to. Two in the last ten months. I’ve stood in front of crowded rooms and tried to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. Tried to offer words of comfort to soothe the pain. Acknowledged that life just wouldn’t be the same anymore. Said we honor those who have gone before us not by retreating, but by living well. And closed the way I close every funeral: “The end is not death. The end is life. Death doesn’t get the last word. God does.” On difficult days like these days, I believe more than ever that such is the case.
Benjamin will most likely return home sometime this weekend. I’ll hug him a little harder and longer than usual. I’m guessing you will do the same with the people you love. And that is a good thing.