Chippewa Herald * December 23, 2002

A hastily planned Florida reunion ends up bringing a family together

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

"These are my only pair of jeans -- Mom told me to be sure not to spill on them."

The moment those words came out of of my thirteen-year-old son's mouth last Thursday at 6:30 a.m., I could sense the impending doom. He was holding my coffee cup for me as we pulled out of Burger King in Chippewa Falls, and, sure enough, seconds later he spilled coffee on his pants.

So there was our track record thus far on this trip: we had traveled 0.9 miles of our 1700-mile expedition, and his pants were already stained. Oh well, his mother wasn't with us, so maybe it would go unnoticed.

Benjamin had always wanted to ride in a jet airplane, and that day he would get his wish. He had often heard the stories that he was in 22 different airplanes in his first year and a half of life, but those don't count. It's tough these days to plan a reasonably priced vacation for a family of seven that involves any air travel.

But this time was different: it was just Benjamin and his dad on the journey, and cost didn't really matter. He was so focused on the trip that he didn't even mention his school's basketball game that he was going to miss that night.

We arrived at the Minneapolis airport on time, only to find that all flights through Charlotte were canceled due to an ice storm. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, as they rerouted us on a nonstop flight to Miami, which meant we were able to travel with my sister-in-law Wendy who was already booked on that flight.

Once we passed the full-wand, shoes-off security check, we were able to relax in the airport food court, where Ben spilled ketchup on his sweater. (Is this a trend?) We finally boarded the airplane for takeoff at 1:30 p.m., seven hours after we left Chippewa Falls.

On the plane, when we weren't listening to my son's "Weird Al" CDs, we reminisced about the last visit from his Florida cousins. Marcus and Andre came to visit their northern relatives for three weeks last summer. They spent most of their time juggling in Minneapolis, but they did have four jam-packed days in the Chippewa Valley, including a visit to the L.E. Phillips Boy Scout Reservation, taking in a musical at the State Theater in Eau Claire, picking strawberries at Mac's Berry Farm, and floating down the Chippewa River in canoes. It was a great visit that ended too soon.

When our plane landed in Miami, we rented a car and the three of us drove to my sister's house. My dad and three siblings from Minnesota were already there, and my sister's church friends were bringing food and flowers to the house.

Gathering with all my childhood family again seemed rather strange, since we had just enjoyed a relatively rare get-together only two months earlier. But it was great to see everyone.

I couldn't help noticing the tear-off calendar near the kitchen sink: it still read Tuesday, December 3, 2002. It was almost as if time stopped that day and hadn't quite restarted yet.

Not long after we arrived, we all sat down on the couch to watch a videotape that some friends had dropped off. The tape was recorded from the Channel 7 local news broadcast the previous night:

"Our top story tonight -- a teen tragedy on Sunset Drive as a student is killed while crossing the street. According to investigators, a green Ford Expedition was traveling westbound when Ernesto Andre Larrea, 15, ran southbound across the street. The driver tried to swerve away, but was unable to, striking down Larrea. Larrea died while being transported to the hospital."

The lead-in was followed by tearful interviews with Andre's mother and brother, now sitting next to us on the couch and watching the televised news report for the first time.

Someone turned off the TV and we all sat there quietly. There were no more tears left to cry that night, 48 hours after the accident.

Saturday's funeral was a celebration of Andre's life. I was amazed at the emotional strength it must have taken for his mother, father, sister, two brothers, and a few friends to all get up in turn at the microphone and address the 400 people in attendance.

The common thread that tied all the testimonies together was our assurance that Andre is in heaven right now, and that fellow believers will see him again. We have this "hope" -- the Greek word is better translated as "confident expectation" -- because of what the Bible teaches us about those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, as my nephew did whole-heartedly.

We also take comfort that God is sovereign, and has a reason for everything He does, even if we don't understand it in this life.

Still, it was poignant to watch 12-year-old Marcus talking through his sobs about how much he was going to miss his big brother. He explained that they have shared a bedroom since birth, and pointed out that they appeared as a pair in the majority of photos in the slide show played at the beginning of the funeral.

In church the next morning, the preacher described our collective emotional state as a gaping wound opened up last Tuesday night. Now that five days have passed and the funeral was over, at least we have begun to stitch up that wound. But it will take a long time to finish healing.

We drove our rental car back to the Miami airport Monday morning; it was a great visit that ended too soon. On our return flight, I happened to glance over at my son's pants. "Benjamin, where is that coffee stain?" I asked. He looked but couldn't find it -- it must have worked its way into the fabric of his jeans.

And so it is with grief: eventually the pain will subside, and that memory will work its way into the fabric of our character. In time, by God's grace, it will compel us to greater love, compassion, and empathy. Meanwhile, I am giving my own kids a few extra hugs.

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