The memorial service was being held at the Morton Junior High school, and was supposed to start at seven PM. Lin and I, along with Jason and Jennifer, got there at about six thirty. There was already a sizeable crowd gathering. I'd never even considered it, but there were several vehicles from TV stations there, and camera crews seemed to be filming everything. Of course, an accident of this nature would draw attention from the media, but they weren't being allowed inside. As we approached the door to the school, police and firemen were preventing all the reporters and camera crews from entering the building. I overheard a cop explaining to one of the media people that the first half hour or so was going to be private, then they could come inside. The TV lady was trying to be persuasive, but it didn't sound like she was going to get anywhere.
The ceremony was in the auditorium, so we headed towards it, greeting people we knew along the way. We ran into the entire Surdiak clan near the door to the auditorium. Bob and Karen, their five kids with their spouses, and all the grandkids. We made small talk for awhile, then I asked Bob if he knew what was going to happen.
"They're going to tell Mike's story first. That's why they're not letting everyone in now. This is just for the kids and their parents. After that, it's going to be a regular service with the choir and everything. I think it's gonna be good, Andy. George and Reverend Kramer and a whole lot of other people have been working all afternoon to come up with something. They didn't have a lot of time, but they think they have it right. Let's go in. There's not going to be near enough seats for everyone."
We went into the auditorium. The Surdiaks found a whole row for themselves. Jason spotted the Anderson family and we sat next to them. It was just Peter, Twyla and Jed. Pete and Twyla looked terrible, and we offered our sympathies for their son, Kevin, and asked after Pat. You could tell that it was hard for them to speak at all.
Pete was crying openly. "Kevin's gone. It's so hard. I can't believe it. All that life - all that hope, now he's just gone. I don't know how I'll go on. What's the point? It's just not fair. He never hurt anybody. He's just a little kid - a little boy."
It was hard, very hard, to confront the grief of those people. We'd known one other couple who had lost a child. Their oldest son had died of brain cancer at the age of seven. Towards the end they'd known they were going to lose him, but that didn't lessen their pain when he finally passed away. How does a parent possibly cope with that phone call in the night?
I had to turn away. I looked at the stage. There were two podiums near the center and four chairs set up off to the side. They were diagonal to the front of the stage, and I guessed that's where the people who were going to speak would sit. I looked at my watch and it was after seven already. The place had filled up completely, and there were many people standing in the back and along the side walls. I was totally startled when I heard a voice through the loudspeakers.
"Jedediah Anderson. James Nettleton. Micheal Waters." It was George McGrath standing at one of the podiums. At the one next to him stood Reverend Kramer. "Will you three boys please join us on the stage?"
Jed was right next to us, and he stood up looking decidedly uncomfortable. Necks were craning everywhere as people searched out the three boys. Mike had been several rows behind us, and Jim was further to the left. They moved towards the stage, Jed going up the stairs on the right, Jim and Mike coming from the left. They met near the chairs, and George had them sit down, leaving the chair closest to the front of the stage empty. All three of them looked stiff and nervous. Jed and Mike looked surprisingly alike, almost like brothers with their blond hair, blue eyes and dark eyebrows. Jed was much taller than Mike. Jimmy is a freckled redhead, and a year younger than Mike, but he was nearly as tall as Jed, and probably outweighed him by twenty pounds.
The people in attendance were absolutely silent.
George went back up to the microphone. "Folks, last night was terrible for all of us, the worst since I've been on the Department. Some of you lost your sons, your brothers, your husbands, your fathers. All of us lost neighbors and friends. We all know we're going to die someday. If you're like me, you hope it will be after a long life, and that you can pass without pain in your sleep. But we also know that there's accidents, lightning, fires, floods - all things that can yank you away without warning. When those things happen, people like me - firefighters, police, EMT's, doctors, nurses - we all go to work to lessen the damage. Sometimes one or another of us will do something heroic, put ourselves in danger to save someone else. But we've all been trained and are supposed to know what to do. Last night, after the crash, there were only a bunch of kids left, some grievously injured and nobody in charge. I want you to listen carefully to Reverend Kramer. Hear what he says. Believe what he says. Please believe what he says. He's going to put a very real hero into this fourth chair."
The crowd was silent. Reverend Kramer spent a full minute looking around the room before he spoke. And he could speak. In normal conversation he was a pretty quiet guy. Tonight, his voice was powerful.
"There's hate in this world! You all know it!" He was booming. Then, much softer, "There's also love. Many kinds of love, many flavors of love. Last night, the word love found an entirely new depth. When that bus crashed, seven beautiful people were killed instantly! Instantly! They never had a chance! They met their maker in a flash."
He quieted down even more, squinting at the crowd, "Today, several of us who are here tonight found out for certain what that meeting was like. It wasn't horrible. It wasn't frightening. It was beautiful! It was wondrous! It was compelling! Irresistible! Real! Oh, yes - very real. Six of the seven dashed towards the beauty that beckoned them. One could not - would not. As drawn to the perfection that awaited him as he was, he knew the devastation that was still on that bus. There were no adults left, only injured children. The others who had died so suddenly had looked back sadly, but could do nothing. They had nothing to help them resist the wonderment of the next world, and they marched towards it."
"The one who resisted, though, still had a connection with this world. A powerful connection. His best friend, whom he loved more than anything, was still alive, still functioning. He found a vehicle to come back in. His friend."
"Imagine this happening to you. You've just been in a terrible accident. People around you are dead and dying, but you seem to be alright - only slightly injured. Suddenly a voice in your head commands you to action. What would you do? Think you're dreaming? Think you're hearing things? I think that's what most of us would do. But what if that voice came from someone you loved so deeply that you had to recognize it, you had to acknowledge it? What then? What if that voice told you it really wanted to leave, to go directly to heaven, that it could in an instant, but if you'd just listen and pay attention, it would try to stay and help? What if that voice told you it knew what to do? What would you do then? You love this voice. More than anything. Would you listen? Would you heed it?"
He motioned for the three boys on stage to stand up. He smiled at them. "Jimmy, Jed, Mike - you did great last night. Good people like you will always try to do the right thing." He turned back to the audience, "Friends, if these boys hadn't done what they did, several more would have died last night. I want Captain McGrath to tell you the details"
The captain leaned towards the microphone. "When our people got to the crash, things were in the order we'd have made if we got there an hour earlier. People had been separated by degree of injury, and the area was completely clear of debris. The most seriously injured had received emergency care that prevented their deaths. Everybody was as comfortable as they could be made. They had water, and what food was available was being doled out. Nobody uses that road much, especially during a storm. The kids in the very back of the bus had been moved forward just in case a car came and hit the rear. We didn't have much to do except haul everyone down to the hospital. Everything we would have done had already been done. It seemed obvious to us that these boys had as much training as we had, or at least one of them did. Reverend?"
Reverend Kramer began speaking in an even voice. "But none of them did. You're looking at Jimmy Nettleton, Jeddy Anderson and Mikey Waters. Most of you know one or another of them. And if you asked any one them how they knew what to do, they'd tell you they didn't know. The truth is, none of them would have known. Trust me, these guys are real heros. They were devastated and scared to death by what had happened, and they all had lost friends, and in spite of that, they followed orders and did whatever they could."
"But the orders came from Jack Murphy - the boy who resisted the irrestible - the call to Heaven. He knew what to do! He knew how to save lives! This one lonely boy knew exactly what to do. And he tortured his own soul, holding off Heaven itself, to stay connected and tell his friend how to do it. You have to picture the strength this took, for both boys. One is at the tips of God's fingers, the most compelling feeling possible, and struggling against everything to hang on just a little more. The other's injured, scared, and grieving over the loss of his friend. Imagine the power of the love between these two. The power that was there for all of us. Jack Murphy fought off God himself to save your children. If the connection at the other end, Mike Waters, hadn't been there it just couldn't have happened. And it couldn't just be a one way connection. Mike's love for Jack had to be ferocious to hold him there, and he held him there until help arrived. Jack had watched the others who were killed enter Heaven."
The reverend paused for a moment, then continued. "He could see and feel the pure joy that entranced them. He knew it was waiting for him, too. But he stayed here. For three hours he stayed here. He stayed here through a connection of love so deep and pure that God's own love could not pull him away He stayed and showed Jim, Jed and Mike how to set up a triage. He showed them how to stem disastrous bleeding, to treat for shock, to give comfort. He had them search the bus for food, get snow for water. He led them to clear the passageway of all the debris from the accident. He moved the children forward from the rear of the bus to prevent further injury if another vehicle should collide with it. There was physical injury everywhere on that bus, but there was remarkably little mental trauma. When the emergency crews got there, nobody was screaming, nobody was crying. The scene was quiet and orderly. Because Jack Murphy, through Mike Waters, had started to work moments after the crash occurred. Together, they started doing all the right things. Those children knew they were in good hands, all they had to do was listen to instructions and they'd be ok.
"Something wonderful happened on River Road last night, something a lot of people would call a miracle. I don't want any of you in this room thinking it was a miracle, though. I want you to think of it as a demonstration. A demonstration of the power of love. A love so all-consuming it could create a bridge to span the gulf between life and death A love so strong it could support that bridge hour after hour, even as heaven and earth tried to pull it apart. I want you to think of the loves in your own lives. Are they that strong? If not, why aren't they? If it existed between two fourteen year old boys, why not in all of us? When I asked Mike Waters how his love could be so strong, he thought for a moment and said 'because it was so much fun'. I think I want to leave you with that thought. Love is one of our strongest emotions, but Mike's exactly right. It should be fun to share love. It should be great fun!
"Now, if anybody in this auditorium has any single doubt about what's been said here tonight, please ... please raise your hand now." He surveyed the room. There didn't seem to be any doubters. "We're going to let the others in shortly, and do some proper grieving for everyone we've lost. If you will, keep what you've learned here private. This is our story, our own beautiful adventure. I don't want to see it trivialized or sensationalized at eleven o'clock."
"I hope you can all appreciate what we've learned here. There really is a Heaven, and it really is beautiful. Tonight we'll grieve for those we've lost, but it will be our own grief. Grief for ourselves. Grief that all those who died in the accident had so much more to offer on this earth. But now we have a first-hand account of their passage into heaven, their bliss at finding their way. They all skeddaled in as fast as they could. All except Jack. Jack had such a strong connection, such a perfect connection with Michael, that he was able to draw the strength to see things through, but the very moment help arrived he gave in to the lure of what was awaiting him as fast as he could."
"One more thing. Just so nobody forgets. From now on your kids will be graduating from Jack Murphy High School. Your next babies will be born at Jack Murphy Hospital. If they grow up to be medically inclined, there will be a Jack Murphy Scholarship, which you're all invited to contribute to, by the way. It's going to be for kids who want to study medicine, or need help paying for emergency services training. A few people wanted to be proper and name everything after 'John. H. Murphy' , but Jack always used 'Jack' and that's how it's going to be. Jack never got a chance to grow up and expand his talents on earth, but like-minded youngsters will be able to learn medicine in his honor."
"I'd like you all to stand and give these four fine young men a nice round of applause for a job well done."
As the audience stood into a thunderous applause, the three boys on stage faced them. Jed was standing in the middle. As the applause rumbled on he picked up Jack's chair an placed it in front of him, facing the audience. He took hold of Jimmy's hand, then Mike's, and put them on the back of the chair. He had tears streaming down his face, but managed a smile, first to Jim, then to Mike. I watched Mike's reaction. Slowly, very slowly, a smile appeared on his face as he looked into Jed's eyes. The smile gradually became a grin, and Jed grinned back at him. They both turned their grins to Jimmy Nettleton, who was soon beaming back at them. They turned their handsome smiles towards the auditorium, and for what might have been just a flash in time or might have been forever, everyone congregated there could sense a fourth smile coming from that stage.
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