Every time it happens, we put ourselves in the shoes of the grieving parents, and are terrified. Yesterday, it happened again.
A bright, talented, and very popular, high school senior at Belleville East died in a one-vehicle accident on his way to class. According to news reports, 18-year-old Chad Wood was one of those young people who lit up the lives of everyone around him. Chad was a talented athlete, starring in both football and baseball for the Lancers. He was well liked by adults as well as people of his own age group. He had everything going for him. His friends say he was simply a great person.
My sons are 24 and 20 respectively. But because they are a bit older, it doesn't stop me from worrying about their safety, and praying for it, every day. As is often said, no parent should have to outlive a child. It just doesn't seem right in the grand scheme. Young people bring such joy and energy to our lives. And, they should be able to fulfill their promise. But the reality of life and death sometimes hits us like a cold bucket of water. Because of their youth, and occasional carelessness, our kids are often taken from us. And so we parents worry. We preach to them to be careful, probably to the point that they don't really hear. Why do we preach? We can identify with the feeling of invincibility that we also had at their age. That's why stories such as Chad's send chills of fear up our spine. Being young makes them more vulnerable than we'd like to believe.
Parents all ask the same questions. Why are young people with such potential taken from us? Why did this happen to him? Why at this time? Is this meant as some sort of lesson? What possible good could come from this cruel twist of fate? Why such a good person? Couldn't God take a ne'er-do-well so that we wouldn't miss them, and hurt so much? What would he have accomplished had he lived? How can we cope?
Of course, I don't have the answers. All I know is that I never really confronted death until a high school classmate, about Chad's age, died in an auto accident in 1969. Neal Hettenhausen was a guy who was a lot like Chad. He was highly popular, good looking and musically gifted. He sang with a rock group. Many of us thought he would become a star. He was beginning to make a name for himself with his enormous singing talent. His friends, both girls and guys, just enjoyed being around him. The world seemed to be his oyster. He was the guy we all wanted to be.
But, one Spring night, while driving home to Millstadt from a play rehearsal in Belleville, Neal's car was hit head-on by another manned by a drunk driver. Our friend didn't have a chance. I still remember, to this day, the photo of the crumpled mass of wreckage that appeared on the front page of the News-Democrat. All of us who knew him were devastated. I sang with the Belleville Area College concert choir, of which Neal was a member, at his funeral. The tears were flood-like. The pain seemed like it would last forever. In a way, it has.
That crash, that took our highly-valued friend Neal, has indelibly etched a most valuable lesson into my consciousness. Death is a real possibility to anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car. I have driven, every day since, with a much greater respect for life, and a clear understanding of my responsibility. My experience gives me hope that Chad's friends and acquaintances might now really understand that its a life-and-death matter when they drive too. I would expect that Chad's unfortunate and tragic death might, over time, save some of them from a similar fate. I doubt, though, that this possibility is bringing comfort to Chad's poor parents today. I hope, if they should read this, that my lesson learned might, after all these years, bring a measure of consolation to Neal's family.