I got up in the middle of the night to write this post.
I know a guy who has spent his whole life swinging a hammer. His thumb nails are purple. The skin on his fingers is permanently cracked. He’s not comfortable in church. Prefers to spend his Sunday mornings walking the beach, looking for sea glass. But he’s closer to God than most men I see in the pews.
When I returned from my Mormon mission at age 21, he offered me a job doing construction. Talk about saving someone. I had no money, no car, no idea. He gave me a used pair of boots, an old tool belt, and a ride to and from work. He gave me direction.
It was 1987 and that fall he gave me Robbie Robertson's solo album and took me to see Pink Floyd. When a joint came down our row, he was the first person not to take a toke. He knew I wasn’t into that. I knew I could count on him. Years earlier, when I was little, he brought me to my first game at Fenway Park. He showed me life beyond my backyard.
He doesn’t read much. He's nearly 70. But books were never his thing. A couple of days ago he called and I immediately heard uncertainty in his voice. He told me he had brought his wife to the hospital a few days earlier. Mini-stroke. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Their marriage has stood the test of time. But time is short now. He’s worried about things like blood pressure, breathing, and when it all stops. It’s enough to make a man weep and beg.
“But yesterday I brought her your book,” he told me, his voice turning upbeat. He always had a way of finding a silver lining in dark moments. He wanted me to know that she was reading my book from her hospital bed.
The book is Make a Choice: When You are at the Intersection of Happiness and Despair. In the past couple weeks, I’ve given copies to a couple friends who are at the intersection. I try to avoid that intersection, but sometimes life just leads me there. What follows is an excerpt from the first chapter:
In 2007, my family purchased an old farmhouse in rural Virginia. It sits at the end of a dirt lane. A few years after we moved in, one of our vehicles was towed to a garage for repairs. In need of a temporary replacement, I called Enterprise, the only car rental agency in the area. Soon an Enterprise driver in his late sixties showed up at my home. He greeted me with a smile and introduced himself as Hugh.
He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Maybe it was his close resemblance to Gordon Jump, the actor-turned-Maytag pitchman. Anyway, I hopped in and asked if he’d had any trouble finding my place. He laughed. “No,” he said. “I’m your neighbor.” As we neared the end of my half-mile-long driveway, he pointed to his house—the one with the immaculate lawn.
“Now I know why you look familiar,” I told him. “I always see you on your riding lawnmower.”
He laughed again. “That’s me,” he said. Then he went on about how much he enjoyed working in his yard.
I asked how long he’d been driving for Enterprise.
A few years, he said. It gave him something to do in retirement. Plus, he said, he enjoyed driving new vehicles and meeting new people.
Fifteen minutes later we were at the car lot. I made a point to tell the desk agent that Hugh had an infectious smile. The agent agreed. Then he asked, “You know about Hugh’s background?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Hugh was a neighbor, but I’d known him less than an hour. His background was a mystery.
The agent lowered his voice. A long time ago, he told me, Hugh’s wife was shot and killed. It was an accident. They had just left their church. She died in the parking lot. Hugh had been a widower ever since.
Over the next few years, Hugh drove me to or from Enterprise whenever I rented a car. Every time we talked, I came away with the same impression—the guy was chronically happy. I’d think the same thing each time I saw him riding his mower. He’d smile and wave. His apparent outlook on life seemed in such sharp contrast to the story I’d been told.
Intrigued, I paid a visit to the office of the local newspaper and requested permission to look through the stacks. Eventually I came across this front-page headline: “Woman Dies in Shooting.” Under it there were two photographs, one of a shattered car window and one of a bullet hole in the side of a pickup truck. There were two stories: “Gun Fired by Child in Church Lot,” and “Victim Was Active in Church.”
On November 24, 1991, Hugh and his wife, Linda, had attended an evening worship service at a local Baptist church, where they were longtime members of the congregation. Linda taught Sunday school there and cared for the children in the nursery. After the services concluded, they stuck around for a going-away reception for a family leaving the area. It was about 9:45 p.m. when Hugh helped his wife and thirteen-year-old daughter into the family car.
They had parked alongside a pickup truck that belonged to a young couple with a three-year-old son. The boy’s father, a hunter, kept a 12-gauge shotgun on the gun rack in the cab. As the family prepared to leave, the boy’s mother opened the driver’s side door and hoisted the toddler up onto the seat. While the mother walked around to the passenger’s side, the boy reached for the gun and pulled the trigger, causing a deafening blast. A slug tore through the passenger’s side of the cab, shattering Hugh’s driver’s side window just as he leaned forward to put the key in the ignition.
Then came the screams. Flying glass sprayed Hugh’s daughter, drawing blood from her face and head. Linda cried out as Hugh rushed around to the passenger’s side door. While he tended to his daughter, he realized that his wife had slumped over in the middle seat. The slug had hit her in the face before landing under a Bible on the floor. Linda died at the scene. She was forty-five.
During the subsequent police investigation into the shooting, details revealed that the previous day, the father of the toddler had taken his little boy deer hunting on a farm. At the end of the hunt, he’d purposely left one cartridge in the chamber just in case he and his son came across a deer as they were leaving. He’d forgotten to remove it. Just as he had forgotten to engage the safety mechanism.
Hugh was devastated, and his daughter was traumatized. She required twenty stitches to her head from the cuts caused by the glass fragments. Worse, she had lost her mother. The courts provided no relief. At the time, it was legal to carry a loaded gun in a motor vehicle. Linda’s senseless death would go unpunished. The gun owner ended up pleading no contest to “recklessly leaving a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger life and limb of any child under the age of fourteen.” Hugh testified at the man’s sentencing. “She started hollering that she’d been hit,” he said before he broke down and wept. “I looked at my wife . . . she was gone.”
The judge imposed the maximum sentence—a $500 fine.
After I’d read the news accounts on the accident, I got up the nerve to ask Hugh how he’d managed to maintain such a cheerful outlook on life. He started telling me about his wife. It was the first time he had ever mentioned her. His trademark smile faded as he recounted the details of that fateful night in the church parking lot. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Twenty-three years had passed, but the anguish over her absence was still just beneath the surface.
I asked how he managed not to be bitter or angry or depressed.
He said he had been all of those things at the time of the incident, and he’d remained that way through a fruitless effort to get the gun laws in his county changed. Then he’d gotten involved in a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer, but that didn’t turn out well either. Hugh couldn’t find peace—until he decided to accept and forgive. To honor his wife, he chose to live the rest of his life as she had lived hers—with ill will toward none.
As he told me these things, it occurred to me that my wife was the same age his was at the time of the accident. I also had a thirteen-year-old child. I wondered how I would have held up had I been in Hugh’s shoes. Not nearly as well, I suspected.
I asked if he was ever tempted to blame or question God.
He wiped his eyes. No, he told me. Never. Faith was something he and his wife had in common. Those shared beliefs helped him realize that the other family had suffered too. The father had to live with the knowledge that his mistake had led to a toddler taking an innocent woman’s life. Hugh got to a point where he felt empathy for the other family, not anger.
Rather than dwell on it, he stayed busy. Friendships and a sense of purpose kept him going. He enjoyed working in his yard. He liked to drive around and meet new people. He still went to church. He smiled a lot.