He is the biggest man I have ever met.
His social worker called us one day and asked if Willie could come to one of our Grief Recovery Retreats, and could she come with him. His daughter had died tragically recently, and Willie would not come unless Maggie went with him.
So on Thursday night when the retreat began, Willie came into our lives, forever changing us. This loss story is overwhelmingly sad, and if there were not ‘hope’ in the story, I would not share it.
One night Willie had come home from work around midnight. As he crawled into bed, his cell phone rang as his daughter, a single mother of three, was calling. She lived just down the street, and often had asked Willie to keep her kids on Saturdays. He was exhausted, and instead of answering the call, he clicked his phone off. He would call her in the morning, he thought.
An hour or so later, another call roused him from his sleep. This time it was the police calling, informing Willie that an intruder had murdered his daughter. Shaken and stunned, Willie then listened to the message his daughter had left an hour earlier. She had called with fear in her voice, telling him that she heard someone outside the house, trying to get in. Her daddy could get there before the police, whom she called after Willie did not answer her call. She knew her daddy would protect her, she said.
Words of course cannot convey his anguish, guilt, and despair that haunted him for months. In his mind he was responsible for the death of his daughter, and no one could talk him out of this conclusion.
So about a year after his daughter’s death, Willie came to a retreat with 15 other grievers, including Maggie. Everyone’s loss story stirred deep emotions within all of us. But to the 15 grievers and the four of us who were leading the retreat, Willie stood out. His enormous size was an obvious factor, as he dwarfed each of us. But his heart was bigger than his body. To call him a ‘gentle giant’ would be accurate. He is one of those persons that you meet, and soon you are captivated by their spirit that seems to cry out – “I am huggable and loveable.” And, almost at the same moment, “if you mess with me I could crush you with my little finger.” But you know he would never hurt you.
So for three days, Willie listened and participated in the retreat. His words were carefully chosen, and always deeply insightful. And he called me Mr. David, which I have never liked, because every time I hear that, I age another 5 years.
On the last day of the retreat, a Sunday, we watch a video on grief in which the speaker mentions guilt. Willie was sitting a few feet from me, and when the ‘guilt’ word was mentioned, huge tears began flowing down Willie’s face. He had not cried since the retreat started, at least not to my knowledge.
Maggie, his social worker and now dear friend, got up from her seat and sat down on the floor by Willie and held his arm. She did not say a word. My wife did the same a few seconds later. And then, when the video ended, every one in that room surrounded him, hugged him, and cried with him.
The retreat ended a couple of hours later. As hugs were exchanged and good-byes said, Willie approached me. He hoisted me up in a big bear hug, and with my feet dangling in mid air, Willie said, and I quote, “Thank you Mr. David. I love you, and I want you to know that I am going to live forward.”
‘Living Forward’ is Spark of Life’s tag line, those words that appear beneath our logo, on all our stationary, brochures, signs, etc. It is our goal to help others ‘live forward’ after loss, and to not merely ‘exist forward.’
About six months after the retreat, my phone rang late one night. I did not want to answer it. It was late, and I was exhausted. I will call them back in the morning, I thought. But then something told me I needed to answer it. So I did. And I will never forget this conversation.
“Is this Mr. David Mathews?”
Yes it is. Who is this?
“This is Willie. Do you remember me Mr. David?”
Willie! Do I remember you? Yes of course. I will never forget you. I tell your story everywhere I go. But I change your name.
“You tell my story? Really? Why do you tell my story? And by the way Mr. David, you can use my real name. But why my story?”
Because your story gives people hope Willie. It inspires people.
‘Well, thanks Mr. David. I am honored you tell my story to help others. I called just to tell you that I love you and Miss Debbie and Mr. Rusty and Miss Nancy. And that I am living forward.”
Willie called me a few more times in the next year or two. Each time he called, he said two things: (1) “I love you and miss Debbie and Mr. Rusty and Miss Nancy” and (2) “I am living forward.”
And this is why we do what we do. This is the reason Spark of Life exists – to give hope to those who have devastating loss – hope that though life will never be the same after such a loss, life can still be rich and fulfilling again. We can live forward.
And to Mr. Willie: thank you for blessing our lives, and for giving hope to so many. We love you also.