(For you who are walking with Phillip, there are three chapters to go. This begins after the concert he played at church. That chapter ended with his observation he would never see his best friend, Kevin, again. I encourage you to get a copy of the book here and share it with friends. Thank you for reading and enjoying this story. A friend said, “It is magical.”)
The lady has her arms around me. I cannot stop crying. She is crying too. I am speaking the words out loud and it doesn’t matter. She has heard them before. And she is doing what I need. Holding me. How can I face life? How can I ever return to school? How can I live without big brother Kevin? Why? Oh Why?
The phone call had come during breakfast on Sunday morning. It had been a great breakfast together. The lady had made celebration pancakes with chocolate chips in them. The man had just left for work, when the phone rang.
“Good Morning, Miss Jeanne,” the lady said into the receiver. “How are you?”
“Oh.” And then the lady was quiet. She began to cry. I didn’t know why Miss Jeanne would call. She never called. Part of me didn’t want to know what had happened that the lady was crying. But soon the call ended, and the lady had to come talk to me.
“Honey. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to tell you this. Kevin. Your dear big brother Kevin. Oh honey, he was killed last night in a car accident.”
I fell onto the floor, at that, and started rocking, hands over my ears and began to say the words.
The lady had come to me immediately, tears still streaming from her eyes, and said, “Come on sweetheart, let’s move to the couch. I will hold you. We both need some holding.”
And some two hours later, we still are there on the couch, her arms around me.
“I’m here, honey. I’m here.”
I feel dead inside. There’s no light. There’s no hope. Every time I stop crying, I remember one more part of life with Kevin. His arm over my shoulder. His laugh. Looking for his present hidden on my birthday. Playing games in my room. Him calling me dude. And I cry more. I stop saying the words and am quiet. It’s like riding the swells of the ocean first up and then down. I think of how Kevin said that just last night.
“Tonight, it was like I was floating on raft at sea, because I could feel the swells rising and falling beneath me. It was so peaceful.”
And I cry again. But then the tears stop. It feels like, I’ve cried them all.
The lady says, “Honey, I am going to call some people. We need support today. Okay?” I nod. I hear her making calls. First, to the man at his job. She says, “Daddy is going to get off work, Phillip, and be right here. He started crying on the call.”
She calls Molly, Maggie and Henry, Dr. Tyler and Melinda, and Pastor Elaine. Then she calls Grandma and Grandpa and asks them to pray. Skye is on the couch with me, paws on my leg and I am leaning over him, feeling his hair between my fingers.
The man with the car and Molly arrive at the same time. Molly comes in carrying a pie. “I had just baked this yesterday. It must be for you. I’m so, so sorry.” She puts down the pie and hugs the lady who cries again. I hear her tell Molly, “I’m so worried for Phillip. How is he going to survive this one? Why? Molly, why this?” They hug again. There are no words. I’m curled up next to Skye, his paw now is on my back, his head resting over my neck. It feels so good.
The man rushes in through the door, glances at the lady, who is still hugging Molly. She signals for him to come to me. He’s dressed in his black pants and blue shirt with “Albertson’s” and “Michael” over the pocket. He is still wearing the vest he usually wears at work. He had left immediately when he received the call, even forgetting to put the vest in the worker area.
The man comes and kneels in front of the couch, leans in and kisses me on the cheek. A warmth goes through my whole body. “Oh buddy. I’m so sorry for this huge loss in your young life.” His words are gentle, and I still cannot get over his kiss. He kissed my cheek. The place still feels the touch. I look up at him. He is crying. He didn’t know Kevin like the lady did, so his tears are for me. He is crying for me. So many firsts.
His long arms encircle me and Skye. He buries his head in my hair and just stays with us there, leaning in still crying. More tears come for me to cry too. More people arrive while he is with me there; I hear quiet conversations in the kitchen.
“Yes. Mr. Simple didn’t come to the concert. He had dropped them off and then came and picked them up to take them home.”
Someone else speaks too quietly to hear, then others, then I hear,
“I can answer. Their car hit black ice on the way out of town, spun out of control and went over the embankment,” whispers Miss Jeanne. Others gasp. More conversation, and another voice drifts in.
“None of them survived,” speaks a man’s voice I didn’t recognize. “I was on call at the hospital when they were brought in.” Oh, that voice is Dr. Tyler.
“The whole family? I’m so sorry. And poor Phillip,” says Maggie.
“He’s the one I’m most concerned for. This has been a tough year for him already,” it is the lady’s voice. “School has become his safe place.”
“Jesus will use this, even this, for some good. Right now, it is the hard work of grieving,” Henry says.
The door opens and someone else enters, is greeted by the others and then I hear,
“Michael? Phillip?” It is Pastor Elaine. “Can I join you guys?” She gets down on the floor and throws her arms around both of us. The man is crying. I’ve stopped for now. The picture of the reality of what happened to them and that the whole family is gone. Mrs. Simple, the giant of a mom with the crushing handshake, and the dad, and Kevin are gone. In an instant. Gone.
Pastor Elaine is quiet, but I can feel she is praying for us because a warmth begins to fill me, as well as a sense that there are other arms around me than hers. She is silent a long, long time, and then says quietly, “God is our refuge and our strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So, we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2, NLT).
Exactly. My life is shaking from this earthquake and the mountains have crumbled into the sea. Kevin was a solid rock for me, a mountain of encouragement, a source of strength. I remember his arms around me on the first day of school, when I hit fear at recess. “So, we will not fear.” Last night those were the words Jesus spoke to me, “You don’t need to be afraid.”
Pastor Elaine just let those words sink in and stayed there praying. The kitchen is quiet, too. Then she speaks again. “I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along” (Psalm 40: 1-2, NLT). This time she repeats the words. And then, again, after speaking them, she is quiet.
Those words surge into me with one thought. I am not the first. Even this person who wrote those words, whenever that was, felt devastated, in a pit, in black mud, sticky muck and rotten mire. Exactly what this feels like today. I begin to be aware of others. No longer is it just Skye and the three of us there at the couch. I sense that the reason the kitchen is quiet is because there is a group around us. I feel a hand touch the back of my shoulder. Someone else sits next to me on the couch. Others are standing and sitting on the floor around me, the man, and Pastor Elaine. They are quiet, but I feel their prayers. It is like we are all connected, and Jesus is moving through us all. It is like that first time the Voice spoke in my closet, the Presence sweeps over me and through me and I take a deep breath.
“Yes. Good breath buddy,” whispers the man with the car. “Breathe again.”
“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Pastor Elaine begins this psalm a little louder, and others who know it join her saying, “This I declare of the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I am trusting him. For he will rescue you from every trap and protect you from the fatal plague. He will shield you with his wings, He will shelter you with his feathers. His faithful promises are your armor and protection” (Psalm 91:1-4, NLT).
The words resonate in the air, like music filling the room. Then the people begin to pray. They give thanks for who God is, they pray for me, they pray for Kevin and his parents as they have met God face to face and for the relatives of Kevin and his family. It feels like last night. It is a concert of prayers instead of music and the same feeling of Jesus fills the place. People cry as they pray, they sing, they laugh, and then again everyone stills.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” I hear again within me.
I hear Kevin’s voice from that day in Sunday School. When my grandma died, I thought that I could not live without her, ever again, but then, it has been cool. I see something that reminds me of her every day. And the things she used to say to me, like, ‘Kevin you are a gift to this world.’ Or, ‘Kevin, remember, I love you and Jesus loves you and always will.’ Well, even though she is gone, I still can hear those and other affirming sentences in my heart as if in her voice. So, in that way, my memories of her make her more alive to me now than when she was around, and I could only see her every few months.
Death is not an ending.
Maybe, Kevin too will be more alive for me now than ever before. Right now, it just hurts. But still, perhaps in time, this thought will help. I sit up, and move from Skye, the man, and Maggie who sat on the other side, and from Pastor Elaine and walk across the room. I sit down at the keyboard, and begin playing, “How Great is Our God” and everyone sings along. The room fills with light, and beauty, and color and joy. The lake with the mountain behind it and all the trees appears in my heart to see and I play on, people sing, and Jesus joins us. God is still great and good. He is here.
When I finish, I play another song and then begin to take requests and we sing for a while.
Miss Jeanne steps up to me and says, “Phillip, I just want you to know I love you. I’m so sorry. And I know Jesus will be in this hard place with you. I need to leave now.”
I hug her.
As Miss Jeanne opens the door to leave, there stands Mrs. McScott, Julie’s mom.
“Oh,” Miss Jeanne says. “I’m just leaving, but come on in.”
“I’m sorry to intrude like this,” she says to the lady, carrying a basket under her arm. As she steps in, I see she is wearing a white skirt, purple, floral print shirt, a big red, unbuttoned coat, with the hat pulled onto her head. Her soft, gentle voice continues to the lady, “I’m Evelyn McScott, I was at the concert last night. I can tell you your boy changed my life through his music. Now, Julie was heartbroken to hear about Kevin. He was her big brother Frederick’s friend in his class. Frederick is having a tough time. Processing death is hard on us adults and super hard for kids. Julie said Kevin was also Phillip’s champion at school. I just thought that kind of loss needs a little something.”
“Won’t you come in?” the lady asks. “My name is Dorothy, I’m Phillip’s mom. We have been praying, crying and just singing a bit.”
“Ah. Well, I won’t stay but a minute. Here, this is for you all. There is a casserole, homemade rolls, salad and dessert. It helps to have food prepared in a time of loss.”
“Oh my, Evelyn. How kind. You needn’t have, but I’m so blessed by your care. Here, meet some others.”
She introduces Mrs. McScott around to those in the room.
“It is so good to meet you all. And Phillip,” she turns to where I am still sitting at the keyboard and takes my hand. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she says, “I don’t know what to say except to let you know I am so sorry for this loss in your life. I think your music is the perfect way to seek healing.”
She gives me a hug and turns back to the others. “I want to tell you last night…” Tears continue to flow from her eyes. “Last night, I had an experience. Through all the music, and that incredible Presence at the church, I heard this voice in my heart saying, ‘Come Home.’ So, we went to church there this morning. And we will keep coming.”
“Praise You Jesus,” I hear Maggie say.
“That’s the best!”
“Thank you for sharing!”
“Here, have a seat,” the man with the car says.
“Well, I cannot stay but a moment,” she says again, and sits.
“Phillip, would you keep playing?”
I would like nothing better. The music uplifts my heart. The pain starts to lessen.
So, for the next hour, I play. First, I play the “Toccata in C, Op. 7” by Robert Schumann, I had played the night before. Then move through other Christmas Carol selections so everyone can sing. Then I decide to play the one Kevin loved best, “Rhapsody in Blue.” Tears flow down my cheeks as I play, thinking of my friend. That’s when I hear his voice saying, “You got this, Dude.” I imagine his arm slung over my shoulder.
For the rest of the day, people come and go. Every family from my class checks in, all of them bringing food. Many just drop things off, saying how their child insisted they do something, even though they never knew Kevin. But they all knew he was like a big brother to me.
Peggy drops by on her own, no parents in tow. She arrives in the early afternoon around 3:30 carrying a huge bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes, rolls, coleslaw, and a big bouquet of flowers. Her hair isn’t oily today, but clean, washed, curled and pulled with two clips back from the side of her forehead. She is wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of the baggy dress she often wore. The dark blue t-shirt says HE LIVES on it and looks new.
When the lady opens the door, Peggy looks at her and says, “Hello, Mrs. Smythe. I’m Peggy Winters. I’m the fifth grader who was mean to Phillip the first day of school. And also, the one who met love for the first time and Jesus through Phillip’s music. I know how Kevin was Phillip’s best friend, and I wanted to come by and tell him how sorry I am for what happened. I’m new to this faith stuff, Mrs. Smythe, but I know as awful as I feel today, that there is something God is going to do which will be bigger than anyone thought possible out of tragedy. May I come in?”
The lady says, “Peggy! Welcome! Of course, come in. And child, you didn’t need to bring all this. What a feast and what beautiful flowers. How on earth did you get here from your place?”
Peggy steps inside and the lady takes the flowers and bag from her placing them on the table.
Peggy says, “Oh, Sundays are not exactly great days around our house, but early this morning, after I heard about Kevin’s death, I asked my parents for money. They understood the need to do something. I left to walk to church, which is also close to the Kentucky Fried Chicken place and the Trader Joe’s which had the flowers. Then, I took the bus from there which eventually came right up your road. I am used to caring for myself.
“And, Mrs. Smythe, I had to do this. I really did. Phillip showed me color I didn’t know existed in this world. The flowers represent the colors I see now. And the food, listen, I know, when someone dies you must eat. My dad owns the Winters’ Mortuary in town. I’ve been to my share of funerals and the receptions held in our garden building. I understand food is important when it comes to a family and grief. I used to not care. I spent my first years mad because of the hard stuff in my family, but after Phillip’s assembly, Jesus showed me He was real. I’ve been attending church, got baptized and discovered there is such a thing as hope.”
The lady says, “Peggy, what maturity, honesty and generosity!” And gives Peggy a hug that lasts a long time.
Then, the lady looks again at Peggy and says, “Peggy. I don’t have the words I need right now. I am just astounded at the change you’ve experienced because of Phillip’s music, and mostly because of Jesus. Seeing you today is a gift.”
“Thank you,” she says. Then she sees me. I am standing behind the lady with Skye listening to the whole thing and she bends down and gives me this huge hug saying, “Phillip, my little brother. I am so sorry.”
Not since the assembly have I been this close to Peggy. She smells nice, like a fresh cloudless day. And my tears come again. As she releases me, she keeps her hands on my shoulders, looks me in the eyes and says, “Phillip, I had to come to tell you how sorry I am for Kevin’s death. I know I have not been a friend yet, but I tell you I will be yours from now on. I know there is no replacing people, and I won’t try to replace Kevin. But if you will let me, I’d like to be in your life to support and encourage you. And if it is okay, I’ll stay a bit this afternoon.”
She does stay. The man brings down the Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys and we build and build stuff together on the floor.
Peggy tells me about her parents and younger siblings. Hers is a hard life, like mine had been. But there is still yelling, arguing, fighting, and anger in her home every day.
She says it had her bitter for years, but after the assembly, she has felt sadder about it than mad.
“My eyes got opened and it is like I can see how anger colors the room, like a black, foreign fog. It fills the air with tension. So, now, instead of getting involved, I’ve been taking my little siblings out of the room when my parents fight. I’ve been praying with them and we read Bible Stories together. They like the change.”
I smile. I do too.
The older Tyler boys, Freddie and Thomas join us on the floor when they arrive later. Andrew plays some too but mostly with the pieces we give him and seeks to break what we build. Freddie’s long-sleeved, button-down shirt has blue, gold and purple colors. It could be a piece of music. Over it he wears a grey sweater vest. Thomas is wearing a blue suit, with a coat and everything, a bright red tie over his grey button down. He takes off his jacket puts it on the couch. Andrew wears a red button-down shirt, and corduroy plaid suspenders. The five of us build and laugh and play.
The lady sets out a huge table of food with all the things people brought, and everyone has dinner, and continues their conversations. But soon, people start leaving, one after another. The house feels emptier and emptier as they depart. Mrs. McScott is the last to leave, continuing to say she cannot stay any longer but staying still. She and Maggie have a great conversation about Jesus. I overhear as Maggie tells her a scripture story and discusses it with her.
When the lady closes the door after Mrs. McScott leaves, she leans against it and says, “Wow. What a gathering. And look how everyone cleaned up! There is no food left on the table, everything has been wrapped, labeled and put in the freezer or refrigerator.”
“Thank you, Phillip for playing music,” says the man with the car. “That helped our hearts, and it looks like yours as well.”
“Would you like to read some before bed?” he asks.
I nod again and take his hand. He walks with me to the living room and picks up The Magician’s Nephew. I sit next to him. He opens it up and begins while I lean against him feeling his heartbeat and listening to the sound of his voice and of the air entering and leaving his lungs.