Dear 16 year old Cheryl Ann,We met a couple weeks before my sixteenth birthday and the connection was instantaneous. I wanted to spend some time getting to know this boy behind the quick, gentle smile, with sandy blonde hair that fell into friendly brown eyes. Problem was, he lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents; an hour away from my house.
His death was not your fault.
With some quick thinking, I convinced Mom to let me spend a week with my grandparents that summer. As I had the fortune of being born on their wedding anniversary, as a gift to honor them, I offered to spend mornings deep cleaning their house. I've often wondered how the rest of my teen years would have played out differently if only Mom had said no.
He came to my grandparents' house for our combined family celebration. Later as we stood outside together, he sang a song to me that had just been released a few weeks before. "She's just sixteen years old, leave her alone; they say..."
I did in fact fulfill my obligation of deep cleaning each room of my grandparents' small house during the early morning hours. Then every day that week between 10-11 am, Greg would show up and the rest of our waking hours were spent together. A lot of "firsts" happened that week for me. My first boyfriend. First time holding hands. First kiss.
By the time I went home at week's end, we just knew this relationship was forever and had decided that someday we would be married. But Greg's first order of business was to get his driver's license so we could date. Haha.
Phone calls were rare, as long distance was expensive. But we did write letters to one another. And one time his parents dropped him off at our house for the afternoon while they visited with friends nearby. I took him to my favorite places there in our country neighborhood, and he carved our names into a tree next to the creek where I loved to hang out and write.
A long-distance relationship proved to be very difficult, especially for the insecure girl that I was. I spent a lot of time writing poems to him, half of which I never mailed.
One day I was sitting in class and suddenly felt someone watching me. I looked up and there he stood in the hallway of my high school, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and beaming at me like he belonged there. He and a friend had skipped school and hitch-hiked to see me. I never knew if he got caught or if there were any consequences.
One Saturday I spent the night with my brother and his wife and the next morning I woke with the oddest feeling that I just couldn't shake. I told Kathy that I really needed to talk to Greg. Problem was, she and my brother didn't have a telephone. I was so insistent that she walked with me to ask their neighbors if we could borrow their phone, as the part of town we were in was not long distance to call Greg. Most folks were not home and the one neighbor who answered the door didn't have a telephone. I prepared to return home, laying aside the ominous feeling.
We had just sat down to dinner when the phone rang. Mom answered and then I heard her say, "Oh no!" She began crying and I couldn't hear anything she was saying. Obviously something dreadful had happened to someone she cared about.
She hung up the phone and went into the next room to quietly speak with my step dad. When she returned she was looking straight at me with sad eyes, tears still streaming down her face. "I have bad news for you..." She said.
For no reason that I can think of to this day, I asked, "Is it Greg?" Mom slowly nodded and said, "He died."
A house fire caused by faulty wiring. He had been out all night coon hunting and had gone to bed late that Sunday morning just before his parents left the house. The wiring ignited in the walls and firefighters didn't realize anyone was in the house, as neighbors had seen the car leave earlier. One little girl kept insisting Greg was in the house and finally a team was sent into the blaze. Attempts were made to revive him, but he was pronounced dead of smoke inhalation at the hospital.
It seems funny to me how one pivotal moment in time changes everything. The rest of my teen years were spent battling depression and suicidal thoughts.
For various reasons I believed that Greg's death was my fault. For one thing, I'd had that ominous feeling that day and later thought I should have tried harder to find a phone. It never occurred to me to question whether a ringing telephone would have been enough to jar him out of his deep sleep. Another reason I blamed myself was because I seriously thought God was punishing me. My mom had gotten into Bible study earlier that fall and every time she had attempted to "preach" to me, I'd refused to listen to her. In my immature mind, somehow this had caused the death of my boyfriend.
Spending time with Greg's family did help me to at least accept his death. His parents took me with them to the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the end of our vacation, before they brought me home, we visited the cemetery and placed flowers on his grave. I had a close connection with his dad and it was very comforting to me when this gentle man pulled me close to himself as we wept together at his son's grave.
The last time I visited with Greg's parents was several years ago. My children surrounded me when I knocked on their door. His mom didn't recognize me, but before I could say anything, his dad's eyes lit up as he came toward me. "I know who you are! Cheryl!" He said and hugged me. I introduced them to each of my children and then he introduced me to their friend as "Greg's girlfriend." Twenty-two years and seven children later and he still saw me as ''Greg's girlfriend."
So now you know the back story. Here's the letter.
Dear 16 year old Cheryl Ann,
His death was not your fault. You are believing some serious lies, girl. You could not have prevented this tragedy, neither did God mean this experience as some kind of punishment. He does however intend this for your good and His glory and one day you will know a little more of what that means. For now, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Accept the grace that has been extended from those who love you; well-meaning friends and your teacher who has reached out to you, bless her heart. These are all chosen people the Lord has placed in your life at this time to help you walk through this dark and lonely season.
|Photo taken one week after Greg's death I remember consciously trying to hide the pain.|
I hate to tell you, though I suspect you already know this truth: You will never be the same as before, so don't expect to return to the girl who knew nothing of love and loss and overwhelming grief. Death has a way of leaving its mark. But I promise, it will get easier. With each passing day, week, month as you count off each Sunday as they come, the passing of time does help to heal the wounds. The scar will remain, but the pain will eventually fade. And someday you will be able to comfort others who have experienced loss.
I won't even try to tell you what's in store for you. Somehow I doubt you would ever believe me anyway. Just know that there is much to look forward to and you are going to be more blessed in your life than you could ever imagine.
Your 50 year old self.
Have you ever written a letter to your younger self? What advice would you give? In hindsight, can you see how God used painful circumstances for your good and His glory?