The Best of Him (A True Story of Redemption)

Redemption is quieting. When it is not a man-made concoction of spun stories or forced outcomes with a cherry on top, (that is to say, when it’s real) the words we use to explain it will always fall terribly short. And maybe they are best left sorting themselves out in our hearts.

So I won’t seek to make things poetic. I’ll simply tell it like it was.

There was powerful brokenness in my life as a child…and in my brother’s…and in my sister’s. The story of the brokenness between my brother and I (HERE) is the kind of stuff most people take to their grave, which he did. He never spoke a word of it. He never told his story.

But a story told is a story searching for restitution – searching for an ending that might become a new beginning.

One word of caution before you begin. If you prefer a sanitized story of redemption, something where all pain is erased the moment God’s magic enters the room, read no further. That is not what you will get here. Because if redemption is as powerful as I believe it is, then it will always come from the ashes…from the burned down buildings of our lives…from the hopes and dreams that were scorched in our own personal house fire.

Redemption is not flawless…but is, and always will be disturbingly beautiful.

Now then…let’s begin.

When my brother, Tim, passed away, he left a piece of himself behind in the form of an unborn daughter. Sweet Ashley came along just seven months after he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.

His life was tumultuous to say the least. And for all he had been through in his chaotic and abusive childhood, it was the fear, anger, and rage that most often came out of him, the brunt end going to whoever was closest to him.

A long, dark shadow was cast over so many beautiful things about him – like that he spent time with those who seemed to be walking their own path in life, shaving lines into sides of their hair so they’d look as hip as he did. Or putting his trendy clothes on them to let them know they could actually be the cool kids if they wanted.

He always celebrated the underdog. Most people missed this about him…something only a few of us would ever know.

Fast forward a couple of decades.

Tim has been gone for twenty two years now, so when his daughter, Ashley, called me after she got engaged and asked if I would represent her dad by performing the wedding ceremony, everything in the universe got a little cloudy. “Of course,” I told her, but my heart was in a vice, because sometimes redemptive love can put a squeeze on you.

I felt the same squeeze the night she was born.

Knowing that Ashley’s father wouldn’t be there, I wrote a letter the night she came into the world. There were things I wanted to say to her when she was older. So I sealed the envelope and put it away for safekeeping, knowing that one day, probably at her wedding, I would give her the letter.

A couple days before I left for the wedding, I packed up several other keepsakes for her – an old driver’s license that eerily looks as if the picture were taken yesterday, some old photographs, a small metal cross he carried in his pocket, and a pair of his athletic shorts from his days as a cheerleader in college. (Ex-military, ex football player, ex bodybuilder turned cheerleader…he was his own bird…something I still admire.)

The wedding was to be held at a chapel on the campus of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, where I had attended for two years. When I transferred in 1991, Tim matriculated that fall. Twenty one years later, Ashley also attended MVNU, walking the same paths, eating in the same cafeteria, listening to same speakers in the same chapel her father had.

I wonder how much of our spirits we live behind. And I wonder if those with unresolved lives leave a little more behind than others. If they do, I promise you, he was watching her all over that campus.

I arrived the day of the rehearsal, to make sure everything was perfect for Ashley. We hugged and I gave her the letter. I asked her not to read it because, honestly, I was a little embarrassed by what it might say. So she tucked it in her bag and we headed into the chapel where I would meet the rest of the bridal party.

I had prepped myself for an emotional weekend. I knew it would be a lot to take in. But in all the plans to keep my heart in check, I hadn’t prepared for this.

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Ashley had put a picture of her father in the first seat of the front row.  There was a ribbon laid out across the seat that said, “In loving memory.”

Sometimes sorrow is woven from the loose strands of faith, hope and love. It carves out the most delicate space in our soul and then asks us to sit down in that space…to feel things that are both so right and so very wrong all at the same time.

Tim should be here, I thought to myself. But instead he was mingling around in the spirit of his daughter. He should’ve been able to tell her what to expect in life, but I’d been sent to fill in for him.

It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t sanitized. It wasn’t flawless.

I looked at his picture and then back to Ashley. “I just want to be able to look down while I’m getting married and see him right there.” she told me. I choked back the tears, realizing a little bit of me had somehow gotten mixed into her gene pool.  It wasn’t just sentimental – it wasn’t a simple bit of nostalgia. It’s where we come from. It’s where we started. It’s who we are.

I had found a nice pair of dress pants for the rehearsal. They were camo which I was happy about, because Tim loved camo. “I wore these pants for your dad,” I told her. She giggled at my show of sentimentality and then showed me the flowers she would carry down the aisle. They were white and red roses, gathered together with ribbon and little white pearls. Near the bottom of the stems were her dad’s dog tags from the Navy. She had tied them around her wedding bouquet.

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This girl. Tim would have been so proud. He is so proud.

Before my sister arrived the next day, I told her about Tim’s picture in the front row, which I thought might soften the blow when she saw it. At first there was silence on the phone, and then I heard her broken up voice telling me how sweet she thought it was. But somehow in the midst of all the hustling around, I forgot to tell my mom.

When I saw Ashley walking my mom to the front of the chapel to show her Tim’s picture, I quickly ran over to be close to her side. I knew it would be meaningful for my mom, but I also knew it would be painful.

When she saw his face, a groan escaped her. It wasn’t a sound I had ever heard from her before. The picture had taken her back a little too far. This maternal moan came from the very place I wished God had never put within us – a place where the loose strands of faith, hope and love had been woven together – this delicate space that sorrow had begun carving out of her soul the moment she lost her son.

She nodded her head in approval, understanding that Ashley had honored her father…knowing it had been the right thing to do. But she was also reminded of his precious life which had deteriorated before it was time.

In sacred moments such as these, moments that are just shy of despair, I watch my mother’s dark eyes – perhaps so I will know how to mourn – perhaps because I wonder if she feels things as deeply as I do.

I gave her a gentle hug while she did her best to bounce back. We were standing around his picture, reminiscing about how proud he would’ve been of Ashley, when a perky young photographer walked up and seized the moment.

“Can I get one of the three of you with him?”

“Of course. Thank you,” Mom said, and we gathered around his seat.

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During the ceremony I only got choked up a couple of times, even though I had taken my own vow against crying.

“If you work hard…and if you stay together,” I told them, “many years from now you will sit across from one another; you’ll look into each other’s eyes knowing every flaw – every imperfection. You’ll understand every weakness in him, Ashley. And he will know every broken place in you that no one else knows but God, and you will love each other supremely.”

And that’s when the tears began to pile up on me.

“Because only you will know what they need. Only you will know who they really are. They are yours and WILL BE yours for as long as you both shall live.

“Hunter, you may kiss your bride!”

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And before I knew it, it was over.

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I walked off the platform and caught a moment alone in a room behind the sanctuary.  I sat down and instinctively whispered out loud, “That was right. It was just…so right.”  And tonight, as I sit here writing, I can’t help but wonder if Tim was there when I said those words – if he was watching his life finally turn out for the better.

When my brother died, a part of me was relieved. His life was broken glass that cut his hands to ribbons every time he tried to pick up the pieces. He wanted to be made new…he even gave it a go…but he couldn’t seem to pull things back together.

I realize that Ashley is her own person…she is not Tim, but there is something of his own redemption alive in her. She is rock solid, where he never was. There is a determination in her eyes that tells me she’ll get right back up when she falls.

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And when it comes to the underdog – to those people who seem to be walking their own path in life…just like her dad, she reaches for them.  She makes them her best friend, (or even her maid of honor) accepts them as they are, and doesn’t force them into a mold that isn’t comfortable.

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Before the reception was over, we were given the opportunity to put money in a basket and steal a dance with the bride or groom.

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In the book, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean says, “…I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brother’s keepers…”

Sitting at the reception, I wondered about my letter. What had I written the night Ashley was born? Had I come through for Tim? Had I really done my part? What I hoped would be words of wisdom for my brother’s little girl, I realized were only the words of a twenty two year old boy, just a few months older than she was now. What could I possibly have said that would be useful?

So when we danced, I told her what I believed Tim would’ve said to her on her wedding day.

“I hope your life is so happy, Ashley,” I said, looking right into her eyes. “And I hope no matter what happens to you, that you will always get back up and keep moving forward in life. I could not be more proud of you.”

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Poet, Ben Okri says, “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

Once upon a time, an abused boy’s life was cut short before he ever had a chance to really live, or really be loved, or to love himself. His life was a series of painful events right up until he passed. But there was goodness in him.

For many, his goodness was hard to find. But standing before the daughter he would never meet this side of heaven, I could see his goodness in her. His pain had come full circle in her life.

This whole day was a redemption I never saw coming, but I had no doubt….

…Ashley was the best of him.

Redemption lives in a secret place, and it is up to us to find it. Why? I have no idea. But it seems it is no different for us today than it was for those who searched for the redemption of Jesus (who was also hidden away…in a filthy barn) over 2000 years ago.

Our redemption will never burst through the door waving a flag of victory. Instead, we must look under every rug we’ve swept our pain and tragedy beneath. We must write our names in the dirt that was left behind on the floor of our lives. And when we find the courage to write them out…that’s when redemption will come to us, the quiet hush within our hearts.

Our redemptive stories won’t make a believer out of everyone, because the dirt will still surround every letter of our written out names. But it doesn’t need to make a believer out of everyone, now does it? It only needs to make a believer out of us.

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“Ashley, your smile will be his brightest day, your voice his sweetest music, your lips his faithful counselor and your prayers his greatest strength. Will you have this man…will you love, honor and cherish him? Will you keep yourself unto him, for as long as you both shall live?”

Through the years, my heart has often asked the question, Who will make his life count for something? Who will make things right for my brother? Who will live out the life he never could?

“I will,” I hear her answer.

Yes, she is the one. She will make it all count for something.

“I will.”  I hear it again as the quiet hush of redemption washes over me – her words echoing throughout eternity.

“I will.”

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