In November my brother Jake and I got to take a drive to Logan airport. The GPS on his phone sucks, and he didn’t listen to me when I would try to direct him, so we had to turn around a few times. We just wanted to be at the airport before Derek landed.
Derek and Jake had been the best kind of friends for 10+ years. We all met in church, and they ended up going to the same private school before going to the same public high school. Derek and his family even moved into a house around the corner from us at one point. Derek and I had always gotten along just fine, and he knew that if there were something rebellious going on who to call. He seemed to be a fixture in our lives not because he and Jake spent all of their time together, but because they didn’t have to. They had ups and downs over the years but had finally found their balance by the time Derek joined the Coast Guard.
The weekend before I started Cosmetology school, the last weekend in February, I went home to visit my best friend. We stayed at my parent’s house, and my brother was on a trip to New York with our former foreign exchange student Larissa. On the same day that she left to go back to her life I found out that Derek was having a party that my brother was missing, because he was back for some reason I can’t remember. My father, who was in the Coast Guard, had found out a bunch of information about where he would be going and looked up as much information on it as he could, printed it out and gave it to Derek in a Coast Guard folder. My dad, who hardly likes anyone, loved this kid.
Luckily I had my “big girl” camera with me so I took pictures during the party and before the party dispersed I took some pictures of Derek with his friends, with my mom, and someone took a few of him with me. Then we made a plan, Derek and I: to pick up Jake at the airport and pick him up together. We went our separate ways to finish out our family business, which means he went and spent time with his family and I watched TV and ate something at my house. When he showed up to our house he was exhausted. Later, while he was visiting his family for thanksgiving, he explained to me how little he slept at home because he was trying to fit in as much with as many people as he could. He crashed on our couch for a while, and then I woke him up and we took my dad’s truck to get Jake and Larissa. On that drive we got to catch up, talking about the past, touching on relationships, what we were reading in the bible, how our families were doing, hobbies, what his experience in the USCG had been like thus far. I told him I would write him and he was stoked, his love for writing letters coupled with his love for people made it a perfect parting gift.
When we got to the airport we didn’t have to wait long for Jake and Larissa, and I could tell that Jake really liked that Derek was there. I also knew that he was really not happy about missing Derek’s party earlier in the day.
When Jake and I were at the airport in November we were picking Derek up so that he could surprise his mother with being home for Thanksgiving. In return, Jake decided to surprise Derek with my being there to get him at the airport. In the 10 or so months that he had been gone we had exchanged a handful of letters (his letters absolutely destroyed, and I always got them on a day I needed some extra sunshine), and he made sure to call me every once in a while as well. I hate talking on the phone, but I always tried to stay on the phone with him as long as possible, to really connect with him so that he wasn’t wasting his minutes, to challenge him to keep in the Word (which he did). He would tell me about his adventures, about how life was on the boat, how hard it was to find any real believers, about what he was reading in the bible, and about where he was heading next.
When he came across the baggage area I managed to get a video of him, heading over with his carry-on. He came straight for me to give me a hug, but I shooed him away so I could get him and Jake on camera. The video is short, but his smile is so big.
I put the phone away and gave him a hug, and then we proceeded to get his luggage and to head to the car. He told me he wanted to show me something, and pulled out from his bag a large throw blanked.
“Isn’t it cool? See, it’s got the Coast Guard crest and the name of my boat, USCGC Munro WHEC-724… Isn’t it neat? Do you like it? It’s for you!”
He tossed it to me.
“Whaaaaat? No it’s not, what? You didn’t get this for me.”
He was all smiles.
“Yeah I did! Oops…”
He grabbed it back.
“Let me see that for a second…”
He ripped the price tag off.
“Ok, there you go! Yup, it’s for you!”
They took me back to where I was living, and ended up staying to hang out for about an hour, Derek and I catching up and Jake playing with my computer. We agreed that while I was home for thanksgiving we would hang out again, which we did. We made cheeseburgers that were extremely delicious and he let me read some of his poetry and give him some honest opinions on it. When he left there were hugs. Jake spent more time with him while he was home.
I have always hated the military. I told Derek not to join out of selfish reasons. I was sure that he would end up going overseas into a troubled area and getting himself shot. I had heard too many stories; I didn’t want this boy to get into harm’s way. I realized on his visits home that he wasn’t the same boy I had known before, that he had been growing while he was away. He wasn’t a kid with a sunny disposition anymore; he was a man with sunshine in his soul.
I shouldn’t have worried so much. Derek didn’t get himself shot. He slipped and fell off a mountain.
On December 22nd Derek went to climb Mount Barometer alone and went missing. On December 25th Rescuers found his ice ax and skid marks 2,200 feet up the 2,450-foot mountain. His body was discovered 1,000 feet below that point a few hours later.
It doesn’t matter how well anyone knew Derek. If you knew him at all, you grieve losing him.
I have been struggling with two things during the past week. First, something I have always struggled with when people die, is how much I am allowed to grieve. There are so many closer to his family, so many who were closer to him. What I can say is that Derek cared for each person in his life, and that is why so many are mourning. He loved his family, especially his little sister Mercedes. He genuinely cared about people and what was going on in their lives, each person he knew. He was a supremely loyal friend, and even when he couldn’t feel the love from others he was usually giving it to them anyway. He had a heart that just ebbed and flowed with the best kind of love, the one that is seasoned with mercy and grace.
The other thing I can’t wrap my head around is why this happened. I keep asking God but I haven’t gotten a straight answer. He has, though, reassured me of something. I will never wonder about how much Derek cared for me, because he made sure to leave tangible evidence of it with me while he could. I think that he may have been smarter than the rest of us, because he sent as many letters, experienced as many memories, and gave as many gifts as he could to make sure that the people he cared about knew without a doubt that he was intentionally holding them in his heart.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11-15
I don’t understand how to navigate all of this, so I am trying to as gently and as harmlessly as I can. Most of the time I push it away, but just like the night he gave it to me, every night his blanket keeps me warm.