“Ain’t nothin’ gonna save you from a love that’s blind When you slip to the dark side you cross that line On the dark side, oh yeah On the dark side, oh yeah.” Eddie and the Cruisers
I’m not sure how or when it happened, but during my senior year in high school I became a shuttle driver for just about everyone who played sports but didn’t have their own car. On any given day I would give someone a ride home after practice or games. I remember a couple of days when the snow had piled up that I made multiple trips, taking people home in shifts. Why, I’m not sure. It definitely wasn’t because my 1973 Plymouth Duster was the coolest car in town. It was just something I did. Most of the guys I gave rides to were sophomore and freshman football and basketball teammates. One of my steady customers was a freshman by the name of Kevin Wilson. Kevin played football and didn’t play much, but impressed everyone with his hustle. He was a bit thin and gangly but had a wiry strength. He definitely wasn’t the biggest or best but he always gave everything he had and did it with a huge smile. As that year wore on we became friends, in a way. We didn’t really hang out, I mean I was a senior and Kevin a freshman, but I could mess with him and he would throw it right back at me and he knew I would always give him a ride even on short notice. One day we were all heading out to do some off-season weight training and Kevin caught up with me from behind jumped on my back and an impromptu wrestling match ensued. I was easily 80 pounds heaver and had rubbed him in the dirt on more than one occasion so the fact that he had jumped me left me laughing uncontrollably. I was almost unable to defend myself but finally regained enough composure to defend my senior honor and pin Kevin. We hurried into the weight room and I joined up with my usual partners for a tough round of weights. That was the last time I ever saw Kevin.
I remember getting to school late and going straight to my first hour class. After class someone stopped me and asked if I had heard about Kevin Wilson. I hadn’t heard anything and the person (I’m have no idea who it was) blurted out that Kevin was dead. The words didn’t hit me like a load of bricks, I didn’t stare in shock, I just laughed nervously and said something to the effect of, ‘Yeah right whatever.’ And I hurried off to my next class. It wasn’t until that afternoon that I got the details, at least what details there were. Kevin had lived with his mother and a live in boyfriend. There had been a good deal of abuse and neglect of Kevin and his siblings. That night, after school something had happened and the boyfriend had beaten Kevin. They found Kevin hanging in his closet the next morning.
The funeral was difficult. I was too young to know how to deal with what I was feeling so I put on a macho somber face and made it through. There were so many people there. I dimly remember the service but I do recall seeing Kevin lying in the casket. Looking back, as an adult I see the waste, the tragedy. I also see too many parallels to my own early life. I too suffered abuse. I too lived in poverty. But I had one thing that Kevin did not: a parent who knew God and brought hope into our lives
I stand here today as one who has seen a glimpse of the dark side of life. Kevin Wilson’s suicide is not the only tragedy I have witnessed. My twelve-year-old cousin, with whom I was very close, was brutally murdered in 1984. I was a freshman at Oklahoma State when my brother and I got the call that J.J. had gone missing. Days later her body was found outside of Oklahoma City. J.J. was abducted from the parking lot of her middle school football field. She was drug into a van and carried off to be repeatedly raped and tortured. Her attacker intentionally kept her alive as long as he could, then when it was clear her young body could take no more he threw her, still alive but just barely, from his moving vehicle. Her funeral, like Kevin’s, is a blur in my memory. I can only recall the weight of the casket as I helped carry her to the waiting hearse. I can only see the hoards of local and national news reporters that huddled outside the church and rushed to take pictures as we climbed down the steps. I can only remember the disbelief that any of these things were really happening.
Then there was Dwayne. I can still see Dwayne’s crooked smile in my mind. He had a gold tooth that was outshone by the mischievous glint in his eyes. We became friends playing endless hours of pickup basketball in Austin, Texas. I was a graduate student just starting a doctorate degree program and Dwayne was one of the first guys that showed up at the church gym when the pastor had let me open it up to start a basketball outreach. Over the next few years we played with and against people from across Austin and the surrounding area. Most nights there were fifty to sixty people waiting there turn to take the court. Some were bums like me, but it was very common for some of the best basketball players around to show up at that cider-brick, tile floor gym to play (more than a couple of division 1 college players went head to head in that gym). But regardless of who else was there Dwayne was one of the regulars.
It was just another Monday night at the gym and I had just settled in along the sidelines after finally losing (every once in a while I got to ride along with some of the good players) when Dwayne’s team took the court. As the game went back and forth, Dwayne went up for a rebound. He misjudged the ball slightly and adjusted in mid-air. He reached back to grab the ball as it went over his head and tilted too far back. His feet never really touched the ground and his head crashed into the floor. It was soon obvious that Dwayne was in trouble. I rushed to call 911 as others attended to Dwayne. Unfortunately his fate was sealed as soon as he jumped for the ball. The paramedics arrived but all of their efforts were in vain. I watched as a friend died before my eyes. A young man, a husband, a father of a 6 week old baby went to the gym for a game of pickup basketball and he never went home.
Unlike the those of Kevin and J.J., I do remember Dwayne’s funeral. In part because I was older when it came, but mostly because of the manner with which it was carried out. While Dwayne had died tragically, just as Kevin and JJ, Dwayne’s life was celebrated while their’s only mourned. The reason for celebration in the face of tragedy? Put quiet simply, HOPE.
Hope is a powerful thing. I am not speaking of false hope found in self-delusion, but of real hope that transforms people and events and allows some to persevere in the face of odds that cause others to perish. I remember the one pivotal moment the I truly realized the power of hope. I was walking along the Bolshoi Canal in St Petersburg Russia with a young woman by the name of Natalya from Minsk, Belorus. We were part of a larger group from Europe, former Soviet countries and the US attending a conference on politics and the media. Natalya and I had just left a site-seeing excursion and were walking back to the apartment building that served the University as a dormitory. The summer afternoon was incredibly hot and we walked down some steps that lead to the canal, kicked off our shoes, and sat with our feet in the cool water that ran from the Baltic Sea. As we sat Natalya began talking about her life and family in Belorus. Belorus had been an early beacon of what was possible for post-Soviet countries as the Soviet Union dissolved. Early-on economic, social and political reforms yielded stunning results. Belorus was being hailed as a model new democracy. Unfortunately, the early promise was not allowed to bloom and the brief spark of liberal democracy was replaced by an oppressive regime that clamped down on every aspect of society. As Natalya spoke of her life she pointed out that her parents had been raised and had lived under oppression their entire lives. The bleak future waiting Belorus did not affect them as much, because, she said, they had never known hope, so the absence of it was nothing tragic for her parents. She, her husband, and others of her generation had been swept up in the brightness of those early days of independence. They, she said, had tasted hope. Thus, the encroaching future was even more dark in its contrast. Then, as she spoke, Natalya said something that has rung in my ears since, “I only want, that my daughter will know HOPE.”
Hope is the existence of the possible. Hope is that light, however faint, beacoming us to continue. Hope does not rely on statistical probability to affect us. Hope simply has to exist. With hope our lives have purpose and we strive to achieve. In the absence of hope, our lives become gray, meaningless, and unfortunately many times our lives end.