Sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, the American journalist Nathaniel Willis wrote: “Youth is beautiful. Its friendship is precious. The intercourse with it is a purifying release from the worn and stained hardness of older life.” Mr. Willis “penned his tribute” to youth about the same time the English poet Joseph Ridgeway wrote these early Victorian lines:
“Youth is the gay and pleasant spring of life, when joy is stirring in the dancing blood, and nature calls us with a thousand songs to share her general feast.”
Recently at an autographing party, I thought one mother might lose her poise entirely when I greeted her teen-aged son with: “Hey, I like your hair!” The well-groomed lady was obviously embarrassed because her son’s clean, slightly wavy hair hung to his shoulders. Her face was as red as his faded red corduroy pants. I did like his hair, And his open, smilingly handsome face (fringed, of course, with what he could muster in the way of a beard) made me happy just to look at him. He wasn’t a hippie or a drug addict or a freak. He was just the age he was, and his mother was the age she was. She was self-conscious—he was disarmingly unself-conscious. “Joy (was) stirring in (his) dancing blood, and nature (was calling)… with a thousand songs to share her general feast.”
When I came upon the above lines, written more than a century ago, I thought of this young man. There he stood—not swaggering, not blushing, not shifting from one foot to the other—just waiting for all of life. Then I searched until I found the quotation from Willis because my brief meeting with the lad had quite unexpectedly given me “. . . a purifying release from the won and stained hardness of older life?’ He didn’t scowl when his mother’s discomfort over his appearance showed so plainly. He smiled, and, quite frankly, I needed his smile and found his mother’s humiliation pathetic.
I’ve thought about him since and wished him well in what I hope is a long, long life. In one sense my future is in his hands and in the hands of other young men like him, some with even longer hair and less open faces. A few moments conversation had assured me that this Adonis with the swinging, red-gold wavy hair held concerns about life that mattered. He spoke easily of love-the love of God—and how we’d better “get with” sharing that love.
How a young man wears his hair could not be less important. How a young woman wears her hair doesn’t matter either. What matters when you are young is that you are permitted to live— to be here, ready to respond to the “thousand songs” that call you to “the general feast.”
Don’t misunderstand The young do not go around fearing death. They fear man’s destruction of the earth on which God has set him; they see the futility of man’s favorite game of war. But they don’t fear dying. Death isn’t real to them. In fact, they seem to love macabre events, books, movies, plays. But even though I can’t prove this, I just don’t believe the young think much about their own deaths. It’s too far removed from the exuberance of today.
A few years ago I watched the faces of six pallbearers, none over eighteen, as they carried the body of a member of their school football team to his grave. The six youthful bearers were solemn, They would miss their friend. But I got the feeling that the tragedy affected us adults far more deeply. This does n indicate hardness in the young; it indicates age’ in us. We know some thing of what the dead boy missed by never being alive on this earth in his twenties or forties or fifties. I believe that nothing sends a chill through the heart of an adult more quickly than the sudden death of the very young.
To millions and millions of adults, from the beginning of so-called civilized history, this quick, unacceptable chill has come. We resist the chopping off, the life not lived, the chance lost forever to succeed or fail, to love or destroy. Even if a life is lived poorly, there is something in us which declares it should have a chance.
Not long ago I had lunch with two friends from he publishing world. One of them, a sensitive, caring man in his mid-fifties, was discussing the book he was currently reading: The Winds of War, Herman Wouk’s best-selling novel about World War II. My friend is an astute man, a so phisticated man, not given to saying the obvious. The book had whisked him back over the years in his own memory to the strange, frightening period of his life as an ambulance driver during that war. His face creased with sudden sorrow. “I can still see some of those bleeding young men we picked up,” he said, almost to himself. “This book has made me remember them. I wonder which of them lived and which of them died.” I could almost see the chill pass through him as he added, almost naively: “It’s even more horrible to me now that I’m older! Do you know how young they all were?”
Too young to die.
In the preceding chapter, I wrote of the long, seemingly endless waiting period though which my college friend, Eleanor Ratelle, and her husband, Noel, watched theft young daughter lie in a coma. My friends’ waiting and watching finally ended: Mary died on a Christmas morning. Here is an excerpt from the letter I received at the time.
Thank you for writing again to ask. The enclosed clipping tells the tale. It’s all over. My beautiful baby is at rest.
I am glad she died because she couldn’t get better. But as to why she was stricken, well, that’s something else. Malformation of the veins and arteries, the death certificate reads. But what caused it? The neurosurgeons who operated on her can tell us nothing. I will have to find a way to stop repeating my question, and I will.
You are right. There are no pat answers! I’m glad you’ll write that book. All I know is that some of us make it and can live awhile and some of us don’t. I do know the good ness of your life here on earth has nothing to do with it. Mary was an angel in life….
People keep saying to me, “How can you stand it? How can you stand it? How will you and Noel live without her?”
Honestly, the things people say! But maybe they need to ask these questions. Maybe it helps them to ask. I simply reply that you either lie down or stand up and that I’m not ready to lie down—yet. My favorite retort when people say in a quavering voice: “Elea nor, how are you?” is just this—”I’m walking around.”
And, dear Genie, so I am.
Much, much love, Eleanor
The Ratelles believe in Jesus Christ, but this letter was written during those first vacuous days following the tragedy, and Eleanor is far too real to have written any “spiritual-sounding” platitudes which she didn’t feel at that moment. She knew that I knew that only Cod can hold a human heart through an ordeal such as hers. Only faith in His ultimate goodness could hold back the perfectly understandable urge she had “to pray never to awaken.” People in Eleanor’s dilemma have committed suicide. She didn’t, but neither did she preach me a sermon or quote any Scripture in that letter telling me that Mary was dead.
She did state her question though. “What caused it?” And to me this is the normal question. Any parent would long to have some sort of explanation from the doctors who had operated on the child. Apparently there was no answer. But Eleanor’s question was not, if you notice, directed at God. She has not, so far as I know, shouted at the heavens for an answer—a pat, understandable answer in human terms—as to why her daughter had to die. Is this a sign of deep, abiding faith even under circumstances like these? I don’t know. I’m fairly certain my realistic, courageous friend hasn’t given the grandeur of her own faith a thought. I’m even more convinced that if I brought it up she would simply tilt her head to one side, look away for a minute in her characteristic fashion, and reply: “I don’t go around trying to measure my own faith. I just keep going.”
People prayed for Mary’s physical healing. Wasn’t God listening? Why did this capable, attractive young woman have to die at twenty-six? If Eleanor and Noel Ratelle have asked this question of God, they have not allowed the fact that they have received no pat answer to embitter their lives. One year later, they’re both excellent company. I look forward to their visits not only because I enjoy them so much, but because I need to learn from them. Our talk now moves on far more serious levels than it might have two years ago, but it moves. These middle-aged, lovable, heartbroken people are alive. They haven’t given up in any way. They don’t belabor the subject of their daughter’s death. When I ask a question, their replies are thoughtful, natural, and free from bitterness. They do not pity themselves because this hideous thing happened to them.
Neither articulates faith as some of us do, but both show all the practical, deep-down indications that Someone is holding them very, very steady. You know how difficult it usually is just to be with friends who have suffered as these two suffered so recently. Not so with them. They are going on with life.
Call it providence or coincidence, but I recently learned of a woman who must now go on alone because her husband—unable to endure the grief—took his own life when word came that their only son had been killed in Vietnam. It was a selfish act, of course; he managed to double his wife’s sorrow. But it is never a mystery to me when anyone fails in trying to face tragedies with out some sense of God.
To me, the mystery is the courage and faith in Life Himself, as shown by my friends the Ratelles. This is a mystery because it is of God, and He refuses to hamper us with “pat answers.” Frail, weak, cowardly human behavior I can understand, if I take time to think, but we waste our time and our efforts when we try to limit God to our concept of what is loving care from Him and what is not. There is no way for us to understand why the young die. They do, as we do. Long ago we should have stopped frying to recreate God into our image. Anyone can know the heart and intent of God because Jesus Christ has made that clear, but His reasons for allowing death, violence, and suffering in the world He created are a mystery. It- is only conceit and futility to attempt to understand or explain.
The Psalmist told us to “…be of good courage.” Courage is required, and our courage in times of tragedy does not diminish God. Nowhere does God promise immunity from deep sorrow, but He did say, “… I am with you always.” Not that He would make us feel “just fine” in a minute, but that He would be with us.
Probably we won’t feel fine for a long time, but He will be with us, and we can go on “walking around.”