Tragedy struck too close to home

Posted: September 4, 2012 in Fatherhood, opinion, Restoration
Tags: , , , , ,

One day when I was a young boy, probably five or six, my mom was bringing me home from school. As we drove up the long hill to our house, we noticed the police in our neighbor’s driveway.

We stopped and found out from a frantic mother that her baby, a little blond-headed boy, had gone missing. He had run away. After several minutes of fretting together, my mom suggested we go drop our stuff off and then help look for him. As we pulled up to our house, I noticed my Spiderman bike had been moved.

Then, as Mom and I went inside, we saw him sitting there in the floor in my room, playing with my toys.

Mom called down and said, “Rusty’s up here. He’s alright.”

Many years later, the most vivid emotion about all this was how upset I was with him for running down the batteries in my Spiderman bike. I also remember that I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t in big trouble. It is only now as a dad of two that I understand the sheer fright and drama of that day.

The neighbors in this true story were no ordinary neighbors; they were our closest family friends.

That boy, Rusty Jernigan was my best friend growing up. I would stay overnight at his house regularly as our mothers went out. He was at my house the day the Challenger blew up. Rusty was with me when I stepped clear through a rusty nail.

We played school yard basketball and video games, cruised around looking for girls, hung out and watched MTV, etc.

We laughed hard together, rode bikes together and got busted buying drugs together.

His mom and my mom were best friends; they had both tragically lost husbands. His brothers were good friends with my brothers; they played high school sports together. My sister was close friends with his sister; they were about the same age and did dumb girl stuff together (whatever that is includes Bon Jovi posters). We truly shared life together family to family.

Rusty and I stayed pretty close all the way until my freshman year in college. He and I grew apart during our early-20s.

Recently through Facebook, I learned he died in his mid-thirties.

A few a days earlier he had gone to the hospital. Doctors thought he was drug-seeking again.

You see, my best friend Rusty had a severe drug addiction–not like a fraternity boy kind of addiction that many people lose once they marry or land a nice job–no, he had the kind that controlled his life.

Rusty had been in and out of jail many times for various infractions with the law, pretty much all drug-related. He couldn’t hold down a job and lived on people’s couches. When he got desperate for a fix, I saw him “huff” paint.

Rusty was the product of a broken home. His dad died at an early age. For many years, his mom who was like my second mom (I loved her dearly), battled depression and alcoholism. It was a tragic situation from which Rusty was never able to recover.

The brokenness inside this man, the pain he tried to cover with drugs, the loving acceptance, guidance and wisdom he never got from a father figure forged his rocky path.

Some lectured him. Some prayed hard for him. Many misunderstood or misjudged him.

He was a good guy with a good heart. He loved deeply but struggled immensely. I wish now I had been a better friend to him.

I hadn’t talked to Rusty in years. The last real memory he and I made together was getting picked up by the cops trying to buy drugs. That was 1994, and that’s when I made a last-minute decision to join the Marine Corps and escape the traps of many small towns across the country.

My military enlistment (and later re-enlistment) set me on a different path. It was on a military deployment after 9/11 when Jesus saved me and changed me. I am thankful for the last real memory Rusty and I made together. It, and he, and all that followed as a result are painted into the mosaic of my life.

Looking back at one of closest relationships I had, I think about how I tried to show Jesus’ love and way. Unfortunately, not many examples come to mind. I once wrote him a letter in jail telling him about what God had done for me. I never heard back. I can only hope he had trusted God with his eternal fate.

When his mother passed away I didn’t attend the funeral. I don’t remember what urgent work kept me from attending, but I regret not attending. I could’ve seen him one more time before his tragic death.

Life is precious, dear readers. I hope you are ready to stand before a God who will grant you forgiveness and grace if you ask. If you are not, today is the day of salvation.

If you are struggling with a life-controlling issue, today is the day to turn it over to God. Today is the day you can lay that broken life down at the foot of the cross, on which hung a broken Savior. Jesus is risen, triumphant and all-powerful. His way is the only way, the narrow way. The other way is broad and leads to destruction. Many are on it right now.

And, if you are like me, today is the day you can wish you had not let “life” get in the way of being there for those you cherish.

Now that I think about it…back when Rusty ran away, I’m glad he didn’t get in trouble, because trouble found him soon enough. I’m glad he had a few minutes (or hours if I recall correctly) to innocently enjoy playing with my favorite toys. My wish for his family now is for them to hear from heaven, “Rusty’s up here. He’s alright.”


P.S. At the height of all our rock throwing, bike-riding, BB-gun shooting, sister-annoying I didn’t know the power of a dad to shape a boy’s life. Rusty and I talked a little about our dads from time to time. I remember he would occasionally tell me when I was complaining, “at least you still have a dad.”

All of us have a “Dad Story,” some good, most bad.

If you are a dad, what are you doing to set your children up for success in life? Are you teaching them the right things intentionally or are you hoping it will just “rub off” on them? Are you praying for them on a regular basis?

  1. Pat Palmer says:

    John, thanks for writing this blog and sharing this memory. I’m 58 and have already lost a majority of my closest friends from childhood. So many don’t make it through to “old age”.

  2. Luke says:

    John, thank you for this blog that you write. I get excited when I see I have something new from you in my e-mail. I lost my dad at 16, and my mom a few months ago at the age of 23. I am always looking for wisdom and encouragement that is Godly. I have two kids and have been married 5 years now, I need all the advice I can get on being the best dad/husband I can be. Thank you for your words and your stories.

    • jonwilke says:

      Luke, thanks for reading this blog.

      I’m sorry to hear about the early loss of both your mom and dad. I’m only 36 and lost both my parents in the last 3 years too. Kinda makes you feel robbed and leaves a hole in our kids’ lives too.

      I appreciate your encouragement and kind words.

  3. Dorris Stanley says:

    Jon, this story touched my heart….I have tears, for i to in first part of my young years, had parents who *didn’t* care. Abusive Parents all the same. I Hope People will read this and hope it touches their heart as it has mine….

    • jonwilke says:

      Dorris, thanks for your comment and transparency. Sorry to hear about your parents.

      Our Father in heaven cares for us. He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lillies of the field. Jesus tells in a parable that you are MUCH more valuable than birds and flowers.

  4. […] really know any different. When I looked around at other families in our small community I saw fatherless homes. This leaves me thinking about what choices, what mistakes, what memories did we make or […]

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