I met him when he was three and I was sixteen.
My sister and I had traveled from our home in Ohio, to a tiny community in East Tennessee, for a wedding, and since we knew a few of his (many!) sisters, they welcomed us to stay with their family. We instantly bonded with all of them and that began a deep friendship that remained strong, through almost two decades of moves, and life changes, in both of our families.
Johnny was always a brave little fella. It seemed that whenever I saw him, he would be riding something much too big for his size, whether it was a horse or a four-wheeler, or the back of a pickup truck. He wouldn’t just be riding, he would be flipping, ramping, or hanging upside down in some form or another. He was, as some would say, ALL BOY. But even more than that, he was full of life and dreams, and love for the world.
Eventually, I got married and moved to Nashville, about ninety minutes west of that tiny community.
That’s when my husband and I came to really know and love Johnny. He was now sixteen, and I was…well. Much older! We would see him when we spent weekends with his sister, Diana and her husband. Or when he came rolling in to our backyard bonfires, with his shades on, trailing a whole posse of friends and fellow teenagers.
He never came alone. He always had a sister, a brother, or a crowd with him. His light was so bright, everyone wanted to be around him. He would simply sit on our couch and light up the whole room with his smile.
Once he brought a pretty young girl from Canada, and then shortly thereafter, told me how that he would marry her. I really liked her and I was so happy for him! But then, it ended.
Somewhere, along the way, the light in his eyes began to dim. And his fascination with life-altering substances began to grow. One morning, I got a call from his sis, and she explained that something awful had happened to Johnny. Some of his friends suspected that he had od’ed, and some thought that his mind had just snapped. Nobody really knows what happened that night, but Johnny was never quite the same since.
That was over two years ago.
Some were quick to condemn his wild behavior and some could only see consequences of that behavior. But I believe, it was during this time that he gave us the greatest gifts. Parts of his true self. He offered pieces of his heart that we had never seen before. His vulnerability. His demons. His dreams. His fears. He talked more about God and his vision for helping the world, than ever before. He spoke of his love for Jesus, and going to Africa to help the poor, more frequently than he had in previous years.
I, for one, am so thankful for those gifts. I know I will never be the same, because of them.
While some saw only a troubled boy, I saw a young man whose heart was desperately trying to find freedom, not only for himself, but for others who found themselves in the same prison. The prison of hopelessness. I saw a happy spirit, held hostage in a troubled soul. A whole and beautiful life, trapped inside a fragmented mind. At that point, I wanted nothing more than his healing and his freedom.
Yes, those years were painful for us.
We all fought for his sanity, his life. There were times that we thought he miraculously got better, and then there were times of desperation, as he fought the tentacles of death, time and time again. There were several times that I got a call or a text in the middle of the night, from his sister Caroline, who happened to be my best friend, saying, “Johnny is not well. Please pray.” Another time, he was so low, that she put him in the car and drove him two hundred miles to a counseling center, which we were familiar with, and believed could help him.
We fought and prayed hard.
During that time, God often reminded me and I would reassure Caroline that he was God’s son, his chosen child, and that He would take care of Johnny. I believed that He wanted healing for Johnny more than we did. I still believe that.
Even today. Even though he is gone.
Though he may have been tired, though for a moment he may have let go, the eternal, un-ending love of the Father never did. It relentlessly pursued him through the pain and the darkness, and the groping. The grasping for light.
It followed him all the way to the end of that barrel. And it never stopped.
A father’s love never stops.
We walked to the end of his life that day, and laid his broken body to rest at a rural gravesite in East Tennessee, but love carried him the rest of the way. Love picked up where we left off and carried him to the place that he gave his life, to find.
It is there, at the deepening chasm between us and him, that we make the exchange. The exchange that wrecks us of our polished philosophies and neatly built theories and thrusts us into the depths of gut-wrenching, agonizing, transforming love. We stand at the brink between life and death, breathless and numb and undone.
We stare at the empty hole in our lives, and there we release him. We release him into the everlasting arms of a loving God, the one who called Johnny his son. There in the solemn solstice of our hearts, we commit him to that embrace, the one that never lets go.
For it is there that we know he is safe. It is there that we know his spirit is free…his mind is finally whole!
And Johnny, I gotta say:
You are still the brave one. You searched the ends of the earth for freedom. And you stopped at nothing in your quest for wholeness. Too bad you had to find it at the barrel of a twelve-gauge shotgun. But you found it! You have finally met the One whom your soul longed for. May you rest in peace, my lil bro. I will never forget your life, your love, your fight. Even death cannot dim your light. It will shine forever in our hearts. Til we see you again!