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by Philip Gulley
The day Adam Brooks died was as fine an autumn day as there is in Indiana. School was in full swing, the high school Homecoming was that weekend, and the first book fair of the year was underway at South Elementary School.
My wife was at the book fair, sorting through the books, when she heard a siren off in the distance. When Joan determined that it wasnt headed for our house and for her children, she returned to her sorting. Then mothers came in talking about a bad wreck on the highway, and within a few hours the word was out that some teenagers had crashed on the highway west of town. One of the boys, Adam Brooks, was dead.
In this town of five thousand people, in three years time, five of our high schoolers have perished in car wrecks. Angela Cook, Elisha Holt, Jacqueline Quandt, Derek Ellis, and now, Adam Brooks. They were all fine children, and when I consider the sad carnage I find myself wishing the automobile had never been invented.
I did not know these children well, though I had met Jacqueline Quandt, who lived down the street from my parents. I saw her every Labor Day at the neighborhood party She was an attractive, vivacious young lady with big plans. I learned of her death from my mother who, on hearing of Jacquelines death, immediately phoned her own children to confirm their well-being. A mothers first instinct. Neighbors gathered at the Quandt home to console the parents. Father Vince came from Saint Marys. The men stood with Jacquelines father while mothers clutched around Jacquelines mother. It rips your heart out to consider the many times this scene has been replayed in our small town.
We are becoming experts at grieving. The local ministers head to the high school, where they counsel and comfort the students. The fire department visits the elementary school, where they teach the children to always buckle up. The undertakers rearrange the funeral parlor furniture to accommodate the flood of mourners. The police department plans the funeral procession. The politicians talk of raising the driving age. The parents ache and for the next few evenings, sneak into their childrens bedrooms and gaze upon them sleeping, grateful for their good health.
The day Adam Brooks died, the high school students told their teachers they werent in the mood to finish their floats and march in a Homecoming parade. Homecoming was postponed. On the day Adam was buried, I was driving my son to kindergarten when the funeral procession, which began at the high school, drove past. I counted 120 cars; Weavers Funeral Home didnt have enough funeral flags for all the cars in Adams procession. The students were dressed in their church clothes, their faces somber and tearstreaked. They wound their way down Mackey Road to Lincoln Street to the South Cemetery. A long, sad line. I looked over at my son sitting beside me in the car and vowed to myself that he would not drive until he turned eighteen. If the politicians wont make it the law, I will.
The week after Adam died, we were building a new playground at the town park. We had saved our money for a year, $80,000 worth, and in five days time we built a playground for our children. Seven hundred people volunteered their help. Two shifts a day for five days. Thousands of meals cooked and served. Like an Amish barn-raising. I went twice to watch but couldnt bring myself to help. I am not a handy person and didnt want to drag the project down. I wandered among the workers, listening to snatches of conversation about Adam. Sad voices and resigned sighs.
There is a healing power to labor. I dont know if sorrow can be sweated away, but the pain seems to soften. The building starts with a somber silence and by weeks end there is laughter. The high school shop class comes to help. The students sand the wood and bolt the race cars together. Smaller children bring their paints and paint murals on the castle walls. On Sunday afternoon, the last rough edge is sanded, the ribbon is cut, and swarms of children scramble over the playground. It is a balm to the soul of this wonderful town.
Homecoming was held the next Friday.
The floats lined up at the old school along with the marching band, the fire department, the Homecoming princesses, the exchange students, and the Junior League football teams. Exum Hadley, unaware of the parades path, turned his pickup truck onto Washington Street and found himself in the parade, smack in between the freshman float and the exchange student from Moldavia. A block later he turned smartly to the left and broke free. Im glad my truck was nice and clean, he told me later.
Dennis Dawes sang the national anthem and the marching band played Back Home Again in Indiana. Jeff Martin gave a fine speech about our towns origins and yet another ribbon was cut. Ribbon cuttings two weekends in a row - a record for our town. People wandered from booth to booth and in and out of stores, sipping cider and buying wooden shelves with heart-shaped cutouts.
My wife and I took our sons to the historical museum, housed in the old jail, and showed them the jail cells, dropping dark hints about the importance of obeying their parents and not fighting with each other. Then we went to the Friends meeting-house where the ladies of the meeting were serving chicken and noodles and raffling off a quilt. Money for missions, for people in faraway countries who havent been blessed as we have.
It is easy, on sweet days like that, to forget that just down the road a mother and father grieve. In those homes, grief isnt healed with labor or parades or football or Swap and Shop Days. You walk past and see the shades drawn and you remember, with a sharp intake of breath, the sorrow that befell those families. You feel guilty that, five minutes earlier, you were happy and laughing when such deep pain was only a stones throw away. Your mind turns to Angela, Elisha, Jacqueline, Derek, and now Adam, and you draw your children close.
Stay out of the street, you warn them. Come up here next to Daddy, on the sidewalk.
So begins a slow healing, which for those of us on the sidewalks is a far quicker process. Soon entire days will pass without a thought of the deceased. Then we will see a mother at the store, still hollow-eyed with grief, and it will come back to us and we will despise ourselves for forgetting. But on quiet Sunday mornings we remember and pray for their healing, and we draw our children close and speak soft and tender words.
Author: Philip Gulley
Publication Date: April 10, 2003
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