In July of 1981, having graduated high school and preparing for my freshman year at Northwestern College, I received two letters in the mail. They were from my soon to be college roommates. Kevin Brasser from Oostburg, Wisconsin and Richard Gould from Spencer, Iowa.
Kevin’s letter said, in part, “I like sports and girls and country music. I’m bringing my stereo.”
Rich’s letter said, in part, “I like sports and girls and Christian contemporary music. I’m bringing my stereo.”
I figured I’d like these guys. And I didn’t have to bring my stereo.
For two years we shared the 3-man room in Colenbrander 3rd East. We played practical jokes on an almost daily basis. We discussed life, debated politics, bemoaned assignments from our professors, studied the Bible, and tried with futility to understand the mysteries of the female gender. Together we enjoyed the fraternity of our fellow dorm mates and formed friendships that would prove to be fast and deep.
Living with a Dutchman like Kevin was a cross cultural experience. From him I learned the letter “B” was key to living successfully in Wisconsin. Bucks, Brewers, bowling, brats, buns, butter and beer. He taught me essential Wisconsin survival skills like which cheese to buy (Gibbsville) and how to grill brats (Johnsonville only).
Rich exposed me to Christian contemporary music, expanding my taste beyond the hymn book. He was a good student and helped me be more disciplined in my studies. I enjoyed his wit and dry sense of humor. He claimed that staying loose and relaxed was key to performing well, hence his conviction that boxer shorts must always be worn on test days.
When graduation day arrived four years later, we’d bonded deep friendships. We went in different directions. Rich left for Chicago to earn his teaching certification. Kevin went to Taiwan to teach English as a second language. And I stayed in northwest Iowa to begin my insurance business.
Three years later found us all moving forward. Rich had found and married Beth. Kevin found Karen and they were to be married in the new chapel back on campus. For the first time in a long time the triumvirate from 3rd East Colenbrander were together again. Memories were shared, old jokes were told and the personal idiosyncrasies discovered in living with people for years were once again bantered about. We caught up on life as we celebrated Kevin and Karen’s marriage.
Late into the evening Rich said they had to leave. He and Beth, his beautiful wife of one year, were on their way to Ohio for a week of vacation. We exchanged hugs and pounded one another on the back as men are prone to do. Then we both said the same thing. “It was great seeing you, man. Let’s not wait so long next time.” He turned and with his arm around Beth, walked out the door and down the long sidewalk of Fern Smith Hall.
A week later I got a phone call from Rich’s brother, Doug. He said that Rich was dead. He had been electrocuted in a freak accident. He was 26. He left behind a 23-year old widow. They’d been married a year and one week.
Within days Kevin and I went from dancing in tuxedos at a wedding to carrying our best friend’s casket across a cemetery lawn. It was a stifling hot and humid August day. I could feel the sweat running down my back as my right hand gripped the rail on the coffin. We walked slowly from the hearse toward the small tent and the sea of faces circling the graveside.
This can’t be happening. Being a casket bearer is a job for old men in dark overcoats and fedoras, not twenty-somethings in silk ties and button down shirts living in their first apartment.
Yet here we are. I remember standing next to Kevin while someone prayed. Except he didn’t really pray. He was “preach praying”. And it went on forever. It was making me mad. I wanted to punch him. About five minutes into it Kevin leaned over and whispered, “If Gould were here, he’d tell this guy to shut up already.”
Finally it was over. We walked to the hearse for the ride back to the church for the obligatory ham sandwich and potato salad lunch. The six of us sat silent, staring through the windows at the citizens of Spencer running errands and working in their yards, oblivious to our sorrow and loss.
The thing about death is that it happens in the middle of life.
It’s hard to believe that was 25 years ago. It’s hard to believe I’m old enough to say things like “that was 25 years ago”. A lot of life has happened since then and most of it not according to the plans made by the idealistic college kids that we were. In business they talk about “5-year plans”. But they don’t have a class called, “What To Do When Your Plans Go Up In Smoke”.
It would be an excellent addition to the curriculum.
From birth we are taught, either purposely or by default, that life is linear. We roll over before we crawl. We walk before we run. We start school in kindergarten and move through elementary into junior high. Then high school. Then we go to college and take classes labeled “101” and “202”. Then “303” and “404” and we graduate. Because everything else has unfolded in order and proper sequence up to this point we think to ourselves, “I believe I’ll get a job, go back to grad school, get my master’s degree (and yes, Master’s classes begin with “505”), get married, buy a split level in the ‘burbs, have 2.5 kids, a couple Big Wheels in the driveway and get a poodle that thinks it’s a real dog.”
And for some, the plan works. Right up and through the part about receiving the gold watch after 35 years of service to the same company and retiring to travel the country in a Winnebago. But not for most. For most of us life is not a straight line. There are detours. Unplanned circumstances. These detours can either derail us permanently or they can become the fodder for a blessed life. If we insist on trying to make life go in order and according to our well intentioned plans, we’ll likely die a frustrated mess. If we accept the detours as experiences to be thoroughly lived instead of merely tolerated, we’ll discover blessings we didn’t anticipate.
Simply put, detours don’t take us away from our life. Detours are life.
It’s good to plan. It’s good to think ahead. It’s good to set goals.
It’s also good to remember that a loose electrical wire, or any other number of random occurrences, could make this day our last day.
Because even if life goes according to plan, the time between wedding and funeral is pretty short.
So go make the most of it.
“Teach us, God, to number our days that we might gain a heart of wisdom.”
– Psalm 90:12
Todd A. Thompson – September 14, 2013