My son got to meet Billy Graham today.
February 21st will be remembered by the world as the day the charismatic evangelist passed away. But February 21st was already a watershed day in my life. It’s the day my child died.
He had eighty-four less years on earth than the Reverend Billy Graham did, but they entered heaven on the same day, eight years apart. They even shared the same first name, though William became Billy for one and Will for the other. Today, an ice storm prevents me from taking fifteen white roses to Will’s grave, but it doesn’t prevent me from thinking about him. Eight years after losing him, here’s what I’d like to tell him.
“My sweet baby boy, I miss you so much. Eight years ago today, on a Sunday morning, you died suddenly, unexpectedly. If you hadn’t, you’d be a year out of college. What would you have become?
On your birthday I think about the little boy that you were, blond hair, blue eyes, dimples, perfect baby teeth. At bedtime, toddler batteries finally exhausted, you’d lift chubby arms and say, “Hold you?” I remember how you liked to watch ‘101 Dogmations’, and carry your ‘rainbrella’. I remember how you’d run into the kitchen when I was cooking to put my oven mitts on your feet. I remember your fearless abandon, jumping off the back of Grandpa’s pontoon boat into his outstretched arms. I remember the boundless joy with which you explored your first snowfall.
But on February 21st I think about the beyond. I wonder how the world would be different if you’d been allowed to live longer than 15 years, 3 months, and 11 days. What path would you follow, what career would you choose? Those questions may never be answered. When I see you again, the concerns of this world will have faded away. I may never know what you would have become.
But I know what you were, what you still are to everyone who knew you. A boy who never knew a stranger, who put no age limits on friendship. A boy with a positive outlook on life, who met each new experience with exuberance and joy. A boy who didn’t give up on his dreams because they were hard to reach. A boy whose smile brightened every room he walked into. A boy who would’ve cherished the opportunity to sit and talk with Billy Graham.
Time marches on, and blessings rain down in the wake of tragedy, but the world is a little poorer for not knowing the man that you would have become.
Your death, as well as your life, has taught me so much. Over the past eight years I’ve learned that an opportunity to take a photo should never be missed, that a calendar packed with wrestling meets and concerts is better than an empty one, and that even mundane moments are precious.
If I’m granted a normal life span, I could live another thirty years without you. If I’m granted a generous one, I might live another forty-nine years, as long as Billy Graham. If I’m honest, I’m not really interested in that. Having outlived one loved one, I’d rather not repeat the experience.
Don’t get me wrong, Will. I know that you see things with an eternal perspective now, and in your eyes, our reunion is not far off. I try to remember that. In the meantime, I want to live what remains of my life to the fullest. I believe that honors God, and serves as a tribute to you.
In a few years, I want to enjoy a long retirement with my husband, a man you never met, but I know you would love. I look forward to road-tripping, dog-walking, hiking in the mountains, and writing. I want to watch your brother mature into adulthood and follow his dreams. I hope to love and spoil grandchildren.
But since you died, I look at death differently. Yes, death before your time, like you experienced, is a tragedy. Death out of order is unspeakable. And death due to preventable causes, or outright evil, is a horrendous theft of potential and possibility.
But death at the end of a long life, well lived and well loved, is not tragic. It’s not a quiet slipping into oblivion. It’s a reawakening into eternal fellowship with Jesus. It’s freedom from fear, conflict, and pain.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.” Revelation 21:4
This knowledge, coupled with the promise of seeing you again, makes extreme old age unappealing to me. Why linger here in a diminished capacity when renewed life awaits me in heaven? I’d rather be there with you, and Jesus, and Billy.”
Those are the words I’d say to my son. But none of us knows the number of our days. If I live to be 99, come sit with me a while. Pull up a rocking chair next to mine, and in the manner of old folks since time immemorial, I’ll tell you about my family. I’ll tell you about the husband I found in middle age, who brought joy and hope to the second half of my life. I’ll tell about my sons. “They’ve made me so proud,” I’ll say. “My youngest is 68. My oldest is 15, and I’ll be seeing him soon.