Today is the day that rolls around every year. It’s New Year’s Eve, and it signals the end of one year (good or bad) and the beginning of another (sometimes anticipated, sometimes dreaded). For me, it is a very bittersweet day.
When I moved to Washington a couple of months before my Freshman year of High School, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. It was yet another move, yet another jagged transition academically, socially, spiritually. And although we were arriving in a state where nearly our entire extended family lived, I didn’t really hold out much hope for that being much of a salve.
Justin was my cousin, and he was a year older than me. I always thought he was funny, but I also thought he was probably the most intimidating person in the world. He was not only funny, but smart, witty, savvy in just about any situation, social or otherwise, and really when it comes down to it…he was completely fearless. That wasn’t me.
I was wracked by fears of social exclusion after spending so many years of my life playing social catch-up, just trying to become known to my peers. I didn’t want to be invisible, but often as the new kid, it’s preferable to the alternative. When I moved to Washington the thing I feared was falling into a void. It seemed at times like there was this black hole that was always pulling at me through elementary and especially Junior High. It’s not an uncommon feeling, I’m sure, but every person who feels it by definition feels alone.
At the age of 15, I met my best friend, and it was Justin. I tend to be the last person to call someone to hang out…I think all of those years kind of got me into the habit of keeping myself busy, and not wanting to face the possibility of rejection. In hindsight of course I know it isn’t usually the person but the timing that leads to that dreaded “Sorry, I can’t,” but I never really wanted to test that theory out. Which was okay, because Justin called me.
At first it was every couple of weeks, but soon it was almost every day, he would be dropping by to pick me up, or when I got my license I was making my way to his house, where we’d watch endless movies, listen to music, or play a video game. We’d head to Alderwood Mall and he’d show me how to purchase clothing for myself that didn’t make me look like Beaver Cleaver, and introduce me to CDs I should buy…some good, some not. But all along I could tell what was happening. Justin was coming alongside me, and he was pulling me up to his level. I’m not sure what drove him, but one thing I know about Justin, was that for all his brash talk and swagger, he had the kindest heart I had ever met. He had a heart for those who were in danger of being left behind.
I was one of those kids, and Justin truly helped shape who I was and who I would become. Of course now I can sit at the computer and say it wasn’t Justin, but his Savior, Jesus Christ, who was reaching out to me. I didn’t have any desire to be involved at my family’s new church, and Justin literally forced me to attend Youth Group with him. At that age, I wasn’t always hearing the teaching, or really being affected by the worship, I was being molded by the love of Christ through His people.
Justin allowed himself to be used for my edification, and gave of himself all the time for me. I certainly didn’t always make it easy, but he never stopped, and what affects me most to this day are two things Justin taught me every time that I was with him.
1. Your closest friends, and the ones you need to keep around, are the ones who tell you the truth, even if it will be painful to you. Like God’s discipline in our lives, it hurts for the moment, but is always beneficial in the end.
2. Of all people, we who are saved and justified in the eyes of our Father, have no need to fear anyone or anything. I’m sure Justin was scared of circumstances and people, but he never let that define him. He had this amazing ability to look people in the eye, no matter who they were. You could call it confidence, but I call it a recognition that he was who he was made to be.
Only two years after arriving in Washington, we were told that we were moving to Minnesota. What surprised me even then, was that I wasn’t really heartbroken about it, and looking back, I think that is one of the most incredible things that I was blessed with during my friendship with Justin. God worked through my relationship with him, and gave me an ability to lean on the big picture, and not lose myself in every significant life change. To use an analogy that Justin would punch me for using, I learned to wait on life’s curveballs (Justin was not exactly sports-oriented).
Just before I moved, Justin returned from a missions trip to Mexico. He was very short of breath all the time. I moved for good in October, and by that time, Justin was always in the presence of a tank of oxygen. He of course joked about it constantly and kept things light, but you could tell he was becoming more and more aware of bigger issues. He never told me how bad it was. I had many nightmares, where Justin would pass away and I would hear about it over the phone. I found myself (in the age before social media) texting him and calling him just to check in. He always eased my fears. Then one night I arrived home from playing basketball at the YMCA. My aunt Candy was on the phone and she told me she was giving me my Christmas present, it was a flight to Washington. I sat on the steps where she told me and wept, because I was glad to go back, and because it hit me how incredibly serious the situation was.
I went, and got to spend time with Justin, not as much as I would like, but it was time. Justin needed a double lung transplant, and one night as his sister Heather and her then-husband, and our cousin Courtney and I were heading in to a movie…we got a call. His lungs had arrived.
The ups and downs of sitting for hours in that waiting room were nearly unbearable. Eventually, it was deemed successful, and we all shuffled home, exhausted by utterly overjoyed. It was a long road ahead of us but the harrowing part had seemingly passed.
Justin never woke up. Complications prior to surgery meant that he had gone a short amount of time without oxygen, which was too much for his lungs to handle, and he did not have the proper oxygen levels to his brain. There was no doubt that Justin would never desire to live on life support in a vegetative state, and so his parents had to make the decision to remove access to the machines that were keeping him “alive.” Of course they weren’t keeping him alive truly, and we all knew it.
Justin passed away on December 31st, 2003 at the age of 18. I remember leaving the RV I had been staying in with my Grandparents, and asking my Aunt Janna if I could take Justin’s classic yellow ’50s Chevy Corvair out. I just drove it around and recalled the many moments I spent with him in his car, weeping openly and screaming why it had all happened the entire time. It was the best thing I could have possibly done.
God never gave me an answer that day, he still hasn’t to this day. The same can be said for the losses our family has experienced over the years since. I have often wondered why. The answer that “God just needed him more with Him in heaven” has never really stood up for me.
Over the past 9 years, me and those closest to me have experienced the spectrum of joys and despair here on earth. Weddings intersperse openly with heartbreaking divorce or infidelity, joyous births intersperse with tragic miscarriages, renewed life has gone hand in hand with the grief that accompanies death.
One thing that I know, is that God began in me at the age of 17 a very good work. The seed of faith became a seedling, often ravaged and deprived of sunlight, but never uprooted, and that seedling has steadily grown in the form of a love for Him, and a cognizance of the fragility of life on earth. I’ve often thought about what a sorrow it is that we must hold so loosely to the things we love so much here on earth, but God, ever faithful, soon reminds me of what lies ahead.
I take great hope in Paul’s letter to the Romans on days like today. What a tender mercy it is to we who follow Christ, to read these words: “For I consider taht the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
All of creation cries out to God, wordless groans and sorrowful wails, yet we have an advocate who puts our groans into words, and our Father knows them all. We serve a God who has promised to deliver. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and DEATH SHALL BE NO MORE, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4). He will make all things new.
I take great comfort in the fact that my Father in heaven has recorded every single tear of mine in his book (Ps 56:8). I firmly believe that on that day when we see God face to face, he won’t wipe our tears of the moment away. He will wipe away every tear we’ve ever cried. This is the God that I cling to. A God more powerful than all imagining, and more tender than we could ever deserve.
I could ask why Justin was taken from this earth so young, but as with every other loss we’ve all suffered through, we must make a decision. Each New Year’s Eve, I make a decision Justin would be proud of. I don’t bother asking why. I trust in my savior, who has kept every promise He has ever made.