When I was a little boy, I thought he was so tall.
He seemed like a giant to me. He stood in the doorway of the front door of our house, where he had opened the door to let the light in. Then he would hold his paper up against the glass of the storm door so that the light could shine through it and the original drawing and then he would trace the figure of the superhero he was trying to capture on that blank canvas of his. I thought he was a superhero. I thought sure he could touch the ceiling. He stood in the doorway and worked on his drawing and the sunlight shined on him. It was usually morning.
Then, as it usually happened at some point, after annoying him and disrupting and defying him, he'd chase me down and demand that I would be confined to my room...for some seemingly indefinite period...He'd grab me and lift me up above his shoulder, cart me off, toss me onto the bed, and commence barking out that I'd better stay put. He was a giant compared to me, and with his chiseled frame, much stronger than me, so I dared not defy him further...but I often did anyway.
He was my oldest brother. And though I hated him for all of those arbitrary sentences of solitary confinement in what actually was his room, when he went away to serve in the Air Force, I missed him dearly. But whenever he came home to visit, no matter what time he arrived, it was always morning. Each time he brought with him trinkets and tales of his travels. But more than that, he carried a distinctive scent; that, as weird as it might sound, spoke on its own of arduous and adventurous journeys in far away lands with varying peoples. From Texas to Colorado to Rhineland, he had seen the world. And though serving in the midst of wartime, for him, all was bright.
Then it was suddenly dark.
It was a Sunday morning, and though our family faithfully attended church on Sunday mornings, this morning was strange because we were all still in bed sleeping as though we had nowhere to go. I remember waking up and lying there, quietly thinking that the house was eerily quiet for Sunday morning. It's usually the busiest time of the week. Girls are getting their hair straightened or taking out their rollers. Boys are bungled over looking under the bed for that elusive left shoe. Mom is yelling that we "better hurry up" and something about how we “should've looked for it last night.” But on this particular morning, there was none of that. Just a strange silence.
Well, as it turned out, the silence had stemmed from the night before, and a visit mom had received in the middle of the night. You know that visit you never want to receive if your loved one works in any of the armed services? It's when those two soldiers come to your door in full regalia. They bring with them the full authority of the US Government, but the burden of bearing the bad news that your loved one is no...longer...able...to...serve...again. He has retired from service abruptly and indefinitely, and he is never coming back.
I finally got out of bed, refusing to lie there any longer in that strange silence, and I went to the front of the house in the living room. Between the sniffles she hugged me and told me to go back to bed. The moment was too delicate to question, and so, off I went, back to my bed, as if this were normal. But very shortly thereafter, it was apparent that we had all been awakened by the silence. She gathered us together, and the five of us huddled right between the boys’ room and the girls’ room and the bathroom.
I remember her saying, “There's been an accident…it's your brother…” Jessica spoke first. "Well, he's gonna be okay right?” For some strange reason, I remember Mom holding her hand near her mouth. It was as if she were tempted to try to catch the words as they escaped her lips and make them go away. “No...he's gone baby.” I distinctly remember the gut-wrenching pandemonium that ensued in that moment. Closely akin to it was the confusion that ensued when we heard that grandpa had died not even two years before. The huddle breaks immediately. There are the immediate shrieks and screams. Then, “No!!!!!” and “Why?!?!” are common refrains. But it is that deep, inner tearing that leaves an indelible mark, a scar if you will, that never goes away. It lasts all through the day(s) and all throughout the night(s).
I'm certain my mom cried for years. And then there are the various coping mechanisms that crop up to compensate for the loss. Look, grandpa died in 90’, then Douglas died in 92’, then grandpa Ben in 94’. I'm convinced that even 20 plus years later she's still extra-sensitive to death because of that dark time. And that's how mourning works. It leaves you raw, and sensitive, broken but aware.
But there's a cleansing effect that tears have too. That deep well where the tears come from is filled with all sorts of bacteria and microbes that, if never purged, might produce a toxic mess of emotions and destructive thoughts and patterns. The shedding of tears and processing of pain make room for a replenishing of hopes and dreams, new experiences and greater opportunities. And so now, this, is how the morning works. You know that verse that says,”weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” It comes...the challenge is to receive it when it comes.
There were many blessings that stemmed from such terrible tragedy, but I will highlight what I believe was the greatest blessing. It was shortly after this great loss that we became members of the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. That church became our extended family. Being connected to a church that cared about educating and ministering to young people, developing strong families and delivering the word of God was an immeasurable blessing for us. But beyond that, I can personally say that being connected to the church guarded and guided my life in such a marked way. It is, without a doubt, a major part of who I am today.
I have had such great opportunities and experiences afforded to me through the church. Places I've traveled (near and far), schools where I have studied and lessons I have learned. Then there's learning to seek, worship and honor God that is obviously the most blessed gift. But then there are the innumerable lesser gifts that come along with those major ones. I'm eternally grateful every single day.
This is how the mourning works. It forces you to take stock of what you lost and what you have left, and invites you to open yourself up to new possibilities and opportunities. I’m even surprised to note that I’m actually a few inches taller than he was. I wish he could see me now. I'm completely convinced that had it not been for the death of my brother, I would not be a Seventh-day Adventist minister. I wouldn't be a doctor, or an author and quite possibly not even a Christian. My big brother gave me life in his death. Let that sink in a minute.
This month, May 2017, marks 25 years since he died. His death rocked our family in a major way. But man oh man did it bless us.
Douglas Leroy Russell is still a very dear part of our lives. We miss him. And we can’t wait til the morning.