Lance, Forty-three Years Later

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On September 16th, I mentioned it would have been my cousin Lance’s 60th birthday, had he not drowned when we were both 17. I quoted a haiku I wrote the day after his death, and promised a post once I had taken some time to ponder the matter.

Like linked syllables
from the same word—now parted—
all my meanings change.

After two months of thinking on the subject, I’ve concluded that my thoughts haven’t fluctuated much over these 43 years. I’ve only gained the supporting details to confirm my immediate impression. When Lance died, indeed, all my meanings changed.

I’m guessing this family picture dates between Thanksgiving, 1962, and Easter, 1963. About then, my aunt and uncle returned from two years in the Congo and began inviting African foreign students to our family get-togethers. Lance would already be 12, and I turned 12 between the two holidays. I was in 7th grade.

Until age four, Lance and I lived in houses next door to each other. Until age ten, our large extended family got together monthly at Grandma’s house, or at my aunt’s. We also shared
an avocado orchard near Fallbrook, a cabin at Mt. Baldy village, and an annual week-long camping trip to Kings Canyon. We spent a lot of time together.

It’s not surprising that we’re posed next to each other. Until 7th grade, when I fell in with a group of boys at school, Lance was my closest friend.

In the picture, it looks like I might have had three inches on Lance, but the athletic prowess was all his. When the cousins played football in the park beside Grandma’s house, I got pushed aside by rushers while Lance ran for touchdowns. I shied away from sports, while Lance played a year above his age in Little League, and led his league in home runs. During picking season, he
climbed stronger and faster, and dared avocados further out on the branch. It was that athleticism and daring, in fact, that led to his death, scuba diving in kelp beds off Laguna Beach.

It was an idyllic childhood. While our parents sat for their monthly corporate ranch-board meeting, the cousins played Hide and Seek outside, or Murder-in-the-Dark or pillow fights in the back bedroom. During work weekends in the orchard, we pulled weeds for
an hour or so and then ran off to catch lizards and frogs. On summer days at Grandma’s, we’d dig a big hole in the sand and cover it with a piece of plywood to make a fort. At Baldy, we’d spend a weekend in the snow or a Fourth of July moving rocks to dam up the stream. By junior high, we’d sold the ranch, but Lance’s family had moved to a rural house near Fallbrook. Days we rode a raft on a nearby pond and nights we played flashlight wars in an acre-or-so of feral bamboo. Lance always knew how to come up with a new activity.

Mostly, it was fun play without mischief, but I do remember an incident from the era of this picture. My parents had gone shopping, leaving Lance and me in charge of my four younger siblings. For some reason we were trying to fool my youngest brother into believing my middle brother was injured. Lance picked up the telephone and hollered, “Quick, send an ambulance! Devin is hurt bad!” Then he went pale and hung up the receiver. In an amazing coincidence of timing, my parents had been calling to check on us. The connection had been made, though the phone had not yet rung. Needless-to-say, it did ring immediately after he hung up. It’s the only time I ever remember us in trouble.

It was my childhood that ended when Lance died (even if adulthood didn’t arrive right away). The protective coating had been stripped away. Though we were more attuned than most children to problems in places like Africa, and my grandparents had suffered a serious automobile accident, our clan had been spared so many of life’s ravages. That ended when Lance was wrenched from our midst. Then, while I was in college, a flood devastated the house at Baldy, and Lance’s parents separated. The idyll was over.

The first change I saw after Lance’s death was that we all hugged more. Coming from New England Puritan stock, we had not been very demonstrative in our affection. Now we hugged the people we loved while we still had them.

Lance drowned in the spring, in the middle of track season. In high school I had discovered an ability to run long distances, my first athletic success. The second change I observed was a loss of purpose in my running. I suddenly realized how much of my inspiration to excel in track came from a desire to impress and compete with Lance. A pulled muscle also hampered me, but it was my most disappointing track season. I ran competitively two more years, and eventually got my mile time down to a pretty respectable 4:32, but without Lance, I never again had the need to prove myself athletically.

I can’t prove the connection, but the third development that shook my family after Lance drowned was religious. Growing up, we had all been part of the Methodist Church. Yet within five years of Lance’s death, half of the family had moved to more conservative churches, while the other half had found something more liberal, or stopped attending altogether.

Death brings to the surface a host of religious questions, and my family had been a long time without a death. We would continue so. Forty-three years later, of the 27 family members in the photograph, only Lance, my grandparents, and a cousin of my mother’s are missing today. For myself, I suddenly had to wrestle with questions of God’s fairness, and of my own mortality.

I was almost 23 before I reached spiritual equilibrium by placing my faith in Jesus Christ. For me, that has been a very happy result. It has led to virtually all of the deep satisfactions I have enjoyed in the intervening 36 years and gives me promise of even greater joys to come. Over the years, though, I sometimes mourned the price Lance had to pay for my propitious wake-up call. Not any more. I recently heard from his sister that in an old box of Lance’s things, she and her mother discovered a testimony, from just a few months before his death, of the same decision I’d make later. While I have been here, Lance has been in the very presence of the risen Christ.

I do not know why God chooses to take some to Heaven young, and leave others on Earth to grow old, but I suspect it has less to do with the nature of this life than with the variety of individuals with whom God wants to populate Heaven. Scripture tells us they will be from every tribe and nation. Experience tells us they will be from every age and experience. God, who created all diversity, must delight in it.

I praise God for the part Lance played in my life while he was here, and for the changes wrought by his leaving. I praise God for the hope of seeing Lance again. Looking back 43 years, and not expecting to live another 43, I am closer to seeing Lance again than to the last time I saw him. That’s change I can believe in.

Posted by Brian at 8:56 PM  


That's pretty much how I remember him. Some of my focus was on his piano playing, which was always happy. I also remember how much he liked to impress us younger kids. He always had "old Apache tricks" to tell us.

I thought his scuba accident was off Oceanside.


Anonymous said...
November 16, 2009 at 9:12 PM  

I'd forgotten his piano playing, but you're right, he was very good at it. If I'm wrong about the beach, it wouldn't be the 1st time my mind has played tricks with me, but I've been holding it against Laguna all these years.

Brian said...
November 16, 2009 at 9:29 PM  

He was diving off Dana Point.

Nice rememberence. As the older brother I remember (fondly) his remarkable ability to torment me in ways clever enough it(sometimes) made me laugh.


Naj.Dnomyar said...
January 13, 2010 at 10:54 PM  

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