Phe, Chapter 4: The Teenager

4: The Teenager

If you look up the trunk of a tall pine tree to your right, you’ll find me sitting on a limb way up in the canopy. This is east Tennessee and the Appalachian mountains are giving their best fall show. It’s one of my favorite places to be this time of year. The mountains look like God threw one of the giant patchwork quilts common in this part of the world over the humps and valleys of the ridges.

I came early to watch nightfall. If I’m sent on a late night run during football season to a back road in the mountains, then it’s pretty certain I’m here for a teenager. This one will be tough and will take some time, so I’m taking my time to enjoy the peace before the storm of sorrow. 

  I love the stillness and bathe in it as long as I can. There’s a sweetness in the arrival of the cold air that sweeps in as the sun sweeps out. Around 11 p.m. an owl perches next to me. He can see me. Owls have long been our companions around the world. They are the watchers of the night and keepers of the dark. In this region, the older people say that the sound of a screech owl at night is a warning that death is near. They fail to recognize that death is always near. The owl makes no sound but turns his head to look at me then back down the road. 

At 1:43 a.m. we hear the tires. We’re perched in a sharp switchback turn that cuts through these mountains and can hear the truck’s speed. This one will be violent and sudden, loud and confusing. It is why I waited here in the turn of the road. It’s better if I’m here to catch the spirit at such a sudden separation rather than riding along with him. Or maybe I’m tired of witnessing the extreme change in emotion and circumstance for souls such as these. Those are the sounds of a truck driven by a young person who is full of life and invincibility, only aware of the rush of driving fast after a great Friday night under the stadium lights. 

The owl turns to look at me one last time before flying off. He’ll screech once he reaches his next perch, a call to signal death has come to the mountains.

The truck barely slows as it leaves the road. The night is dark, a new moon, and the teenager didn’t have the twists and turns memorized as well as he assumed. Simultaneously I hear the crunch of metal as the engine wraps around a tree and the shattering of glass as the boy’s body flies through the front windshield. As his body hits a distant tree, his spirit rips away. I can hear the severing, the tearing of threads fast and harsh. He was strong and young and his spirit was tied closely with his body. This was sudden and unexpected and violent.

I pause for a moment, one last moment of quiet. The forest is still again and I take it in before floating down to the Teenager. His spirit is utterly confused and panicked, it tries to rush back to the body now mangled by the tree. 

I follow. Grabbing him won’t serve any purpose now. He must see and try to process for himself. It’s horrible for him, to see his invincible self unrecognizable and realizing he is floating next to it. His spirit swirls with chaotic energy. Then I see it shift as understanding puts order to it again. That’s when I reach out and lightly touch his shoulder. He turns to me, not surprised but full of questions.

I float him back up to the tree branch where the owl had kept me company. We look down on the wreckage and sit in silence again. I’m in no rush. No one knows the Teenager would have come this way. He took a friend home after the game, which took him away from his usual route. It will be hours before the graveyard shift leaves the factory down in the valley, sending the next drivers on this road. Even then, several will pass until the light of early dawn increases enough for anyone to see the truck and then more time will pass as they travel over the mountain to where there is cell service again. 

The Teenager sits silent for a long time. I’m surprised, actually. Usually the questions and anger have started by now, especially with one his age. He just sits and looks at his truck below us and his body nearby. Finally, he turns to me and asks,

“What does he need me for?”

I’m confused. “What?”

“What does he need me for?”

“Who? Who needs you? I don’t understand.”

“God. What does he need me for?”

Ah. I’ve heard this before but the concept still leaves me dumbfounded. The Teenager doubtlessly has been told that when someone dies it’s because, “God needs them in heaven more than we need them here on earth.”

Several of us have talked about this but still don’t understand it. Why would God need any human in the divine realm? Why would she suddenly take humans from their families, causing such pain, out of some need to have them with her? I really don’t understand it. It sounds so arrogant to me and the others that humans would assume God would need them somehow and that she would selfishly rip them from their lives to have them with her. 

The tendency of humans to refer to God as “he,” I understand. Thanks to Jesus’ teaching on the Trinity, very well done I might add, Christians have always called God “he.” Truthfully, God is neither male nor female but we presences tend to refer to God however we refer to ourselves. I’m a “she” so God is a “she.” Important for us is whatever brings us comfort and opens us more fully to God, whatever deepens our trust and understanding.

But how does thinking God “needs” a human in the divine realm comfort loved ones when one is ripped from them? 

I look at the teenager. “No. That’s not what’s happening. God doesn’t need you for anything. God loves you and has never left you, but you didn’t die because God ‘needs’ you for some purpose. You had plenty of purpose here.”

“Then why? Why would he take me from all of this? Why now?!”

I feel the anger start to rise inside the Teenager. It doesn’t bother me and I’m not afraid of it. The anger is natural and understandable, especially for one still so young and full of life. I can feel the anxiety and fear as well that follow whenever humans become angry with God. Generally they don’t trust her enough to share their anger with her. Many of them don’t understand how anger opens the way for relationship, understanding, and healing. All of us go through a time of anger with our work, since our entire being revolves around death and ushering souls fully into her. It’s difficult work and the anger is a necessary step in our deepening relationship with God, but also in forging a greater capacity for compassion for those with whom we work.

It will take time for the Teenager to understand. He has his own passages through anger and sadness, regret and fear, ahead of him. But they all lead to the same opening and freedom, the same ultimate joy from belonging.

I take his hand in mine as we sit and I hold it for a moment. He allows me some silence as I allow his anger to settle. Anger is always a symptom of something deeper, so I wait for his sadness to take its true form.

“You died. That’s it. You weren’t paying attention and drove too fast on a mountain road. It’s physics, really, which I know is of little comfort right now. You drove too fast and it was too dark and that’s it. The truck came off the road and hit the tree, sending your body flying. The impact with the tree was too much to take and your spirit separated from your physical form.”

He sits with this for a moment. I feel the guilt arrive and I can’t do anything to stop it. Young or old, most humans must pass through guilt before letting themselves be free. They want to make their death their fault, as if taking responsibility now will somehow change things. The Salesman did the same. He shamed himself over the cigarettes he smoked and the doctor’s appointments he missed. I’ve heard it all before: “I should have,” “I shouldn’t have,” “If only I had.” All I can do is be present with them but my heart breaks for the ease with which humans reach for shame, on themselves and others.

“If God needed you in heaven and pulled you from your family like this, truthfully, that would make God very selfish, would it not? To inflict such deep pain of loss on your family because he needs you in some way? Especially a god whom we all know is all powerful? Don’t you pray, ‘Almighty God’?”

The Teenager thinks for a moment, looking down the road. He’s looking to where his family is, far in the distance somewhere, just starting to wonder why he hasn’t come home yet. His mother is beginning to worry and his father is fussing that he’s probably hanging out with some of the other football players and lost track of time.

“I never thought about it that way. I suppose you’re right. I guess I just assumed God knew better than I did…”

I laugh slightly, “Well, that much is true: God does know better than all of us. But that doesn’t mean God makes things happen. He watches and loves and sits with us all through the pain but doesn’t cause it. That would make God malicious and mean, and I can tell you for certain that isn’t the case.”

“So what now?” the Teenager asks. “Where’s the bright light? The hymns and clouds and stuff?”

“Now it’s up to you. I can take you whenever you’re ready. We can sit and wait for them to find you or you can go on, whichever you feel you need.”

“That’s it? No big sound? No ‘heavenly voices?’ Was everything I was taught a lie?!”

The anger starts to come back. Fear this time is the real emotion and I get it. He thought he knew how it would be and now he’s finding out that it’s not. I take his hand again and look at him.

“Everything you were taught wasn’t a lie. The people who tried to teach you about and show you God, they were doing the best they could and shared with you what they thought they knew. They didn’t lie to you.”

“But what next? What happens to me?! Where am I going?! Oh, God! I’m not going  . . .you know . . . to HELL am I?!” (Another conceptual love affair I wish humans would quit.)

I put my arm around him to quiet him. “No! No. You’re fine. Wait. Settle.”

I hope that his spirit will calm down and let go but the agitation and fear are too strong, so I tell him what I have come to understand.

“No. You’re fine. And you’re loved. That’s first. That’s always first. I’m willing to bet you know the song, ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ right?”

He nods his head with questions still large in his eyes.

“Ok. Then you know the most important part. And you know that the people who taught you this song loved you very much, right? Your parents and grandparents? Your Sunday School teachers?”

He nods some more, waiting.

“I’ve been around a long time. For centuries I’ve been doing this work.” 

Surprise crosses his face and I smile at him.

“Even I don’t understand it all and sometimes I struggle with that. I wish I knew. I wish I could tell you every detail of every step and could answer every question you have. But God is too big. Too big even for me and certainly too big for you or any other human to comprehend. In fact, God is so big that all the humans together still aren’t close to understanding.”

I look at him to see how he’s doing. He’s listening intently, wanting to comprehend what I’m saying.

“But humans don’t do well with mystery, not generally. You all like to test and dig and research and theorize and answer. It’s actually one of the things God gave you that she loves the most—he loves the most. You don’t do well with questions to which there are no answers. But with God, there are more questions than answers and that’s the way it’s meant to be. That doesn’t prevent humans from still wanting certainty. All of those people who love you and taught you everything you know, they wanted to give you answers and they wanted to give themselves answers. So they said what they thought made sense and what brought them comfort.”

Listening to myself I start to grow uncomfortable. Am I doing what the humans do? Trying to provide answers so the Teenager won’t feel as afraid or uncertain? Where is my own faith? My own belief? I know what comes next is beyond my comprehension, so what business do I have trying to tell the Teenager anything? But I also know that what comes next is pure love and I want to convey that in some way to this young spirit. I realize, in this moment, maybe I’ve come to love humans some too. This surprises me as I sit on the branch with him.

“I think I’m ready.” The Teenager’s voice pulls me from my own questioning. “I don’t want to wait any longer. If love is what waits, that will be better than seeing friends or family find me.”

It’s my turn to nod in understanding. He’s young enough to still trust what I have said without needing further proof. I pull him close and we start the transition.

Once I know he’s calm and moved on, I come back to the scene. I crumple like a piece of metal possibly thrown into the woods by the collision. I want to rest with the Teenager’s questions and see who comes with the police and ambulance. This is a small town and every person who answers the emergency call will have known the Teenager or his family in some way. At least one will be a cousin or a brother or an aunt. 

I hear the sirens climb the mountain roads and watch as my comforting friends arrive, bringing with them some new faces ready to learn how to respond to this kind of death. They wait, then fly to the emergency personnel as they leave their vehicles and start comprehending what happened and putting together the pieces. Again I’m glad I don’t have the comforting presences’ job and they are glad they don’t have mine. I can calm a departing spirit and answer their questions, but I don’t know how to sit with the shock and pain of those left behind, feeling helpless by not being able to offer answers but only able to sit, to be a presence.

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