Thoughts of a nephew now gone
Today is the 17-year anniversary of the death of a nephew, Paul Scott Scandrett. In his honor, here’s a piece I wrote long ago in Where Roots Grow Deep.
On January 2, 1995, my two sons and I watched our beloved University of Oregon Ducks play Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Thanks to a friend with connections, we sat on the 45-yard line: Section C. Row 27. Seats 14, 15, and 16.
From the Goodyear Blimp we were just three dots in a colorful collage of football fans. But from our perspective, we were paupers at the king’s palace—a stadium whose history and symmetry were steeped in nearly century-old tradition. Pilgrims who had driven nearly a thousand miles in a single (long) day to the gridiron mecca of Pasadena, California. Quacker backers wildly waving green-and-yellow pom-poms and blowing plastic duck lips in honor of our underdog heroes—a school whose unfamiliarity with these royal digs inspired shirts that said: “Just Like Clockwork—Every 37 Years, Oregon Goes to the Rose Bowl.” Indeed, the last time the University of Oregon had appeared in the Rose Bowl, 1958, I was getting ready to enter kindergarten.
As the kickoff neared and the roar from the stands escalated, I remember momentarily thinking that this was a dream. Was this really Oregon lined up across the 35-yard-line? The school that had finished last in the Pac-10 conference the previous season and had lost two of its first three games this season? The school that, when I was sports editor of its newspaper 20 years before, had lost 14 straight games, including one 66-zip, and had drawn such small home crowds that people joked that it would be faster to introduce the fans to the players?
Now Oregon was playing in the most prestigious bowl game on the planet in front of a crowd ten times the size of those during the lean years. My sons looked awestruck at the surreal scene surrounding them. Millions of people watched from TVs in homes and bars and stores. Some 103,000 fans were on their feet, stomping and screaming, some of them waving roses in the blue Pasadena sky.
I have never felt so lonely in my life.
Because amid this magical mass revelry, I knew something that nobody else in the stadium knew; something that I had learned within hours of arriving in Los Angeles two days earlier; something that, coupled with the joy I was sharing with my sons, had me experiencing the highest high and the lowest low of fatherhood. Paul, my brother-in-law’s 16-year-old son, was dead.
• • •
Paul Scott Scandrett was born on October 24, 1978, the same day that my wife learned she was pregnant with my oldest son, Ryan. Because of that and other similarities, I’ve always thought Ryan and Paul enjoyed a link that went beyond their being cousins. To this day, it’s hard for my wife’s sister, Linda, and her husband, Greg, to see Ryan because he reminds them so much of the son they no longer have: independent, people-oriented, and down-to-earth. He had a penchant for mischief. A knack for a good one-liner. And a quiet faith in God.
He was the last of three children Linda and Greg would have. As our two families grew, we seldom lived close enough to spend much time together, so ours was one of those Christmas, Thanksgiving, and special occasions relationships. I see Paul, his brother Brad, and my two boys belly flopping onto an old water-bed mattress in our backyard one summer.
I see him playing in a family baseball game—the day my youngest broke his first window with a line drive.
Mostly, I see him standing beside a Christmas tree, playing a shepherd boy in our family’s traditional Christmas Eve play while one of his cousins (the innkeeper) holds up a sign saying, “No room.” As director-by-default, I had, over the years, assigned Paul to be everything from the Ghost of Christmas Past to a store clerk, but more often than not, he played a simple shepherd boy. Though it was not a leading role, he always accepted it and, dish towel tied securely around his forehead, played it well.
A week before the Rose Bowl, my wife’s side of the family—four generations, 22 people in all—gathered in Oregon for yet another Christmas Eve.
A week later, at 5:30 a.m., my sons and I left our Eugene, Oregon, home in a van with a friend and his two sons for Pasadena. Fourteen hours, three Big Mac stops, and a couple of potty breaks later, we arrived. After checking into the hotel, I weaved my way through the New Year’s Eve celebrants in the lobby and phoned my wife to let her know we had arrived safely. I could barely hear above the lobby noise, but when she answered, it sounded as if she were sobbing. My mind raced. “I have some terrible news,” she said.
Grandma Klein, I thought. At 90, Sally’s grandmother was wearing down; in fact, on Christmas Eve, she had surprised everyone by interrupting the present-giving to simply say how much she loved us all, as if she knew something we did not.
“It’s Paul,” Sally said.
Earlier in the day, he had been hiking with his 17-year-old brother Brad above the canyon-flanked Skokomish River southwest of Seattle. He had slipped and fallen some 40 feet into turbulent, icy water.
“They . . . think . . . he’s . . . dead,” she said. “They haven’t found his body.”
Paul? No, not Paul. No . . . no . . . no.
We talked some more. I stood in near disbelief. Should we come home? No, Sally said; the service wasn’t to be held for five days. She had her sister—and best friend—Ann to lean on. Enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience, she said; even Greg, Paul’s father, had said as much when he heard we were in Los Angeles.
Should I tell the boys and shatter the trip for them or wait until we returned? Neither one of us knew the right answer. I said good-bye, buried my face in my hands, and cried. As I wandered back to our hotel room amid people laughing, wearing New Year’s Eve hats, and holding drinks, I was thinking: This is not how the script is supposed to go.
A street kid with a needle-pocked arm dies, but not the son of my brother-in-law, a small-town minister in Washington state.
An adult with a disease dies, but not my healthy nephew, the all-star soccer player, the kid who had just played an impish shepherd boy in the family Christmas play.
A 90-year-old grandmother in constant pain dies, but not a 16-year-old kid who, a week earlier, had spent the night with us. I had come home from work and heard strange noises coming from upstairs. “It’s Paul and Ryan,” said my wife. “They’re having a burp-off.”
Before returning to our hotel room, I decided to not tell the boys until we were home. The news would only taint the trip. There was nothing we could do. I would find a way to mask my pain. As I lay in the hotel room that night, everyone asleep but me, I remember dozing between dream and reality. Paul is dead.
Paul is dead.
“Happy New Year!” yelled someone down the hall.
• • •
Death is ugly. Death is seeing your 44-year-old, unshaven brother-in-law for the first time after he has lost his son, almost too weak to stand, looking as if he has aged ten years in ten days.
Death is a house full of relatives and friends talking in library-soft voices.
Death is a table in the church lobby that’s displaying childhood photographs and a model airplane and a soccer ball that no one will ever kick again.
Death is a vase of roses next to the portrait of a young man.
Even if your faith were as deep and wide as the love of God promised in all the Sunday school lessons, how could you deal with the death of your son? How could your lips even move, much less sing “Amazing Grace”? How could you ever walk to a pulpit again, much less proclaim the glory of God?
As I watched my brother-in-law and his family during the memorial service, I grieved for them and held tight to my wife and sons, having already tried on the thought of death to those nearest me. A couple of months after Paul’s death, Greg and I sat alone in his living room. Given my brother-in-law’s grief, I had learned to accept long stretches of silence, because it often said what words could not. “I was at the computer, cleaning out programs,” he said after a while, “when I came upon some stuff of Paul’s. The computer asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to delete?’”
He stopped, unable to talk.
“I wanted to scream—No!!! I don’t want to delete. I didn’t want it to be so . . . so final.”
We drove to the spot where Paul had fallen, and we stood on a bridge, far above the frothy white water that pounded through a notch in the Olympic Mountains. Greg lamented that so many young people today regard life as cheap—not a privilege, but a pain.
“What hurts is that Paul loved life,” he said. “Why did it have to be someone who loved life so much?” Why? Why? Why? A million whys, churning through our souls like the icy waters below.
Though we hadn’t communicated much in the past, Greg and I began e-mailing each other—first only occasionally, then with growing consistency. As a pastor, he was forever under the congregational microscope; some members of his church felt that recovering from the death of one’s son was like a military furlough: Once the period of time was up, say a month, you rejoin the regiment with a stoic sense of business-as-usual.
But it will never be back to business-as-usual for my brother-in-law or his family. Late at night, in the safety of cyberspace, Greg would bare his often-tormented soul with the click-click of computer keys.
He wrote of wanting someone to be held accountable for Paul’s death. Why hadn’t the Forest Service placed signs warning of the dangerous canyon slope? He wrote of trying to be strong for his wife and family when he felt no strength. He wrote of the listlessness of life. And of anger at God. “I really miss Paul,” said one e-mail message. “And the predominant emotion for me is anger. Anger at God. It is so intense sometimes that I fear I will not be able to preach.”
• • •
He did. With the passage of time, Greg not only preached again, but did so with renewed fervor; with a certainty that had been steeled by a faith shaken but not shattered; with a faith strengthened by a willingness to finally say, “I do not understand. I may never understand. But, Father, I still believe.”
Often when speaking, Greg would refer to the words of Isaiah 50:10: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”
On Christmas Eve, nearly a year after Paul’s death, our family theater group announced that the annual production would be presented by the Paul Scandrett Theater Company. Every play would be dedicated to the memory of the missing shepherd boy, reflecting the faith and fun that made him who he was.
The play was a comedy aimed at Paul’s sister, Traci, and her new husband, Brandon. Greg laughed. Linda laughed. Everyone laughed. And I sensed healing, though I knew none of us—particularly Paul’s family—would ever be the same.
A week later, I watched the 1996 Rose Bowl on TV. Seeing the stadium brought it all back: the best and worst day of my life exactly one year before. The day I was wrapped in a schizophrenic funk, one moment sharing the wonder of it all with my sons, the next minute wanting to shout to 103,000 people: “How can you all be so happy? Don’t you understand? Paul is dead.”
A Penn State fan, he would have been pleased with the outcome; the Nittany Lions won, 38-20. I told my sister-in-law I wish he had been there to see the game with us; he would have had a great seat. “He had a better one,” she said.
Since that day, I think of Paul whenever I see a rose: petals of promise inextricably linked to the prickly thorns below. Joy and sorrow on the same life stem, waving in the blue Pasadena sky and, in a church lobby, dutifully guarding the sweet face that a father will never forget.