“The next time you see me, I’ll look different!”
These were the last words that I spoke to Eric. I yelled my thoughts to Eric as we were getting in the Accord and leaving the family Christmas celebration. The sun shone brightly that day causing me to squint as my husband, Gene, and I drove away and looked back at Eric standing by his Accord with his mom. I had hoped to begin a diet plan that would cause me to look healthier and trim when I saw him next. We didn’t get to see each other much anymore since he lived in Atlanta and we lived in Raleigh. I didn’t realize it at the time, but our family get-together in Knoxville would be my last earthly visit with my brother-in-law, Eric.
This is the week when other memories of Eric swim in my head more intensely because the anniversary of his passing happens on Saturday, January 31. I choose to dwell on the fun swim parties when I first started spending time at Eric and Gene’s house when Gene and I were dating in the early 1990s. I have pictures in my head and some actual photos of the fun we had around the dinner table as our families got to know each other. I choose to see his grin. I look at the image of him and his brother, my husband, from our wedding and see two boys turned to men. I flip into picture books and see Eric and our little flower girl, Sydney, at our Wedding Rehearsal Dinner and notice how he beamed as he leaned in close to her in 1997.
I will never get to take any pictures of him with my children. At least not on Earth. You see, the next time I see him, it will be in heaven. He joined Jesus in heaven on January 31, 1999. As this date approaches each year, I wonder how I will feel. It has been 15 years. I’ve decided that it’s time to tell my story about how his death happened and its effect on my family.
Gene was in Veterinary School at NC State University. He joined classmates on a Sunday afternoon, January 31, to participate in intramural volleyball. After church that day, we ate lunch. He changed to go to volleyball practice while I spread out my teacher papers all over our table. We lived in the two bedroom townhouse that we had just bought in Raleigh. Eric had visited us from Atlanta at Thanksgiving. I even insisted that we decorate early for Christmas so that Eric and our parents could see our new house all decked out, Christmas tree and all. I sat in our great room working on lesson plans for my third grade class which supported my goal of achieving National Board Certification. It had been a good school year at my new school, but becoming a NBCT as a Middle Childhood Generalist, required constant preparation for upcoming lessons, plans to record video and analyze my teaching and time to think. I had time to think that afternoon about my plans. Gene kissed me and drove to his practice. Little did I know, though, that when the phone rang, my life would change forever.
“Is this the residence of Gene Maples?” the man’s trembling voice asked me after the second or third ring. “Yes, it is,” I replied. The man mentioned that he was a friend of Eric’s in Atlanta and that he needed to tell us something. I told him that Gene was not there and that I could take the message. I’ll never forget what he said next. “Well…Eric…sort of…died.” I played back his first strange comment in my head as he told me that Eric had been involved in a car accident that had happened the night before. Another driver entered the Interstate down the exit ramp driving the wrong way down the Interstate. As Eric and another passenger were travelling home, they came across a knoll and boom. Impact. The other driver, a drunk teacher, hit Eric and his friend head on. The only one dead was Eric. Killed on impact.
The voice on the phone had been trying to reach Eric’s parents in Tennessee all day. This was a time before Cell Phones. They had not yet been reached. I was the first family member to get the news. I had no cell phone to reach Gene. I took the man’s phone number and proceeded to process the news. There was nothing left to say.
I cried. I picked up my Bible. All I could do was embrace the Bible and cry. I remember thinking, ”How will I tell Gene when he gets home?” This was the day that I waited at our kitchen sink, gazing out of the window until Gene drove up. I suddenly realized that this was the last time I’d see “that” Gene, the one whom I had fallen in love with years before and had married just a year and a half before. In a few moments, nothing would ever be the same. He opened the door smiling, saw my red splotchy face and inquired, “What’s wrong?” I didn’t know what to say but said something like, “Something has happened.” I wanted him to sit down but he wouldn’t. “Tell me!” he insisted. I told him the news of the call. He literally fell forward and I caught him. He and I sank to the floor unable to get up. This collapsing was what I would later see that happened to our life in general.
After what seemed like forever, we rose and attempted to call his parents. No one was home still. A couple of hours later, we reached them. They were told but it seems like someone else had gotten the news to them first. At that point, I was mentally strained and had tried so hard to be the good wife. We made plans to get to his parents’ house in Tennessee and would leave on Monday.
Our pastor came to our home and tried to comfort us. I had to prepare lesson plans to be out of school for the next week. I appreciate the team of teachers who helped me and arranged a substitute teacher for me. To this day, I don’t even know how I functioned during the next 24 hours except that God took care of my heart.
The hours passed and we finally made it to my parents’ house two hours away in Greensboro. The next day, the cat sat on Gene’s lap all the way to Tennessee. Gene didn’t talk. I drove the five and a half hour trip around those dangerous curvy roads in the N.C. mountains on I-40 scared to death for our safety as the 18 wheeler trucks zoomed only inches from our car. I felt for the first time in my life the feeling of devastation. The cat had never sat still for this long. I realized that even our pet sensed that something dreadful had occurred. Her presence with Gene gave him comfort as he stroked her while she stretched out on his lap for five hours.
Hugging his parents and being in their new lake house which they had just built in the previous three years gave me great comfort. We had gotten to visit them while Eric and some of his friends had come up from Georgia on a couple of other occasions. It was in this house where Gene and I had announced our engagement to both sets of our parents and Eric. The family wedding shower filled the living room with laughter and joy. There was nothing there now except sadness. Now, his room, right next to ours, was empty. The finality of it all began to cascade over me in many ways. His mom, being a lover of family pictures, decorated with them all over the house from infant images to our wedding photos. As I would view them in their house, a lump would develop in my throat. My heart could not take it that her first born son was gone.
The next day, the decisions at the funeral home happened in Knoxville. The Family’s Receiving of Friends took place in the days that followed. The Funeral occurred at the church where Eric grew up and gave his heart to Jesus. We cried and cried.
We visited with Papaw and Mamaw, Gene and Eric’s grandparents, at their lake house where Eric and Gene had grown up on the weekends as young boys and in the summers. They learned to fish there, jump off of the dock and create giant cannonballs. The grandparents’ house was now just a few miles from Gene and Eric’s parents’ new house. I remember riding in the car with one of Eric’s cousins who had flown in from California for the funeral and hearing Papaw recollect stories of how he helped to build Panama Canal as well as WWII stories. Although I had spent summer vacations at the Watts Bar Lake in Tennessee with this family, it was experiencing the death of Eric that had brought us all back together this time. I wish that I could go back to my father-in-law’s blue fishing boat years before when Eric and Gene watched as I learned to Knee Board in the cove of the lake where their grandparents lived, but never could stand up on water skis. I could see them cheering me on from the boat. I could see the rest of the clan on the water’s edge up at the house watching and advising me from a distance. These happy times at the lake were now just a memory.
Eric talked to his mom last on her birthday, January 30, the day before he passed on to Heaven. He called to wish her a Happy Birthday before going out with his friend. As this date approaches each year along with his birthdate in August, I am overwhelmed at the life we now have lived without him. I miss that my kids will never have Uncle Eric to call. I’m an only child so now neither of my kids will have the opportunity to have a blood related first uncle. I think back sometimes on the two criminal trials of the teacher who killed Eric. I am saddened for that man and his family. I won’t share the details of the trials, but will say that the teacher was sentenced to prison for a long time. I will forever be sentenced to not having a brother-in-law to experience life with on Earth.
I hear the echos that people would ask of me, “How are ‘they’ doing?” speaking of Gene and his parents. As the wife of Gene, no one really knew all that I had lost and would never have. They didn’t know to ask, “How are ‘you’ doing?” I can say that the experience caused my husband to barely speak during the next year. I prayed for him and knew that he had lost much more than me. “How would we ever have a normal life again?’ was the question that hung over my head. He successfully completed Vet School each day but had no words in the evening. He had no smile and nothing I could say made it better. After only being married for a year and a half, the death of Eric ended our honeymoon setting us up with barriers to communicate which we have worked hard to overcome.
I loved living in Raleigh but was thankful when Gene graduated in 2001. We moved across the state for him to begin work as a Veterinarian. I started teaching at a new school. During the second trial in the Fall of 2001, I was again out of school for a week as we travelled to Atlanta for a jury trial. My stomach was upset a lot during this time. I found out in December that I was pregnant with our first child after the trial was over. Our child began her first month of life in my womb while we heard testimony about the horrendous and painful way that Eric died. The verdict gave some closure to the whole ordeal. Finding out that we would have our own child, provided a new focus and in all honesty, was exactly what we needed.
I know that Eric would have loved our children so much. I really don’t know if he would have ever had kids, but I do know that we would have watched TV together when we visited, gone to church together, gone to Disney World and laughed together. I can see his boyish grin in my mind. It would have been amazing to have just had him with us for all of life’s big and small moments. Our families traveled to Florida together in the mid 1990s and experienced Disney World together and the joys of going in an RV. Eric and his friend, Matt, brought me a bunny figurine for my birthday which I still have and cherish. I just miss having more moments like this, but truly grateful for the moments that God has given. I have a blessed hope, though, knowing that when we are absent from the body, as believers in Christ, we are present with the Lord. One day, I’ll see him again and he’ll meet our kids since we have all given our hearts to Jesus.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” This Scripture has helped me during the times when death overshadowed my life. I know that joy did not just show up in our lives one day, but it came slowly back as we allowed ourselves to live again in the days and years after Eric left us. I am thinking of him tonight and again find myself crying. Each year, as people prepare for the Super Bowl Weekend, we hang out with Gene’s parents doing our best to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. No one should have to face what she and her husband have endured. They can talk about Eric now more than they used to be able to do. I love to hear their stories of Eric and Gene as little boys. These are the stories that make me strong. I feel blessed to be a part of this family and to have known Eric. I miss him and want to see him again.
I know that Eric is at peace in heaven and am okay now, but in the days that followed our loss, I could not stand to hear the various words that would be spoken to me. Sure, people tried to comfort, but all I knew was there was a hole in my life, in my husband and in my marriage. I still don’t know what to say when someone’s loved one dies. No human can ever offer the right words. For the longest time, I couldn’t read the sympathy cards because of how they tried but couldn’t say what I needed to hear. The words of the sympathy cards would pierce my heart instead of heal it. I pray for people and ask for God to comfort like only He can when their loved ones pass even if I don’t send a card because I can hardly bear giving them the feeling that I got. Not everyone responds like I did, but I knew that time and the Holy Spirit would lead us to recover from the loss. I feel so blessed to know the One who raised from the dead and conquered death. One day, when we all get to heaven as believers in Jesus and ones redeemed from the power of sin, I want to thank God for how he carried us and brought recovery to our lives after Eric went to heaven. I thank Him now for how He gives strength to the weary and binds up their wounds.
I was thinking today of a song from long ago which just popped in my head as I drove to school. The song wasn’t on the radio and I hadn’t even sung this song for many years. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about Eric. God knew that later in the day, I’d read a blog post from Ruth Ayers which would immediately cause me to want to share my special story. Sandi Patti and Wayne Watson shared this song with the world in 2002. It is called “Another Time, Another Place”. It blessed me as I prepared for January 31. I love the comfort that the Holy Spirit gives to us through music. The Holy Spirit has used this song and others to bring me a sense of peace about Eric. I wanted to share the song’s lyrics that I heard today so I’ve placed them at the end of this post.
I guess it is true about what I told Eric when I saw him last. The next time he sees me, I will look different as I told him. In heaven, we will have new bodies but will know each other according to the Bible. I am glad that Eric accepted Jesus as his Savior like I have. This is the blessed hope that we will have an eternity together.
Here are the lyrics to “Another Time, Another Place”:
I’ve always heard there is a land
Beyond the mortal dreams of man
Where every tear will be left behind
But it must be in another time, oh, oh, oh
There’ll be an everlasting light
Shining a purest holy white
And every fear will be erased
But it must be in another place, oh, oh, oh
So I’m waiting for another and another place
Where all my hopes and dreams
Will be captured with one look at Jesus’ face
Oh, my heart’s been burning, my soul keeps yearning
Sometimes I can’t hardly wait
For that sweet, sweet someday
When I’ll be swept away
To another time and another place
I’ve grown tired of earthly things
They promise peace but furnish pain
All of life’s sweetest joys combined
Can never match those in another time, oh, oh, oh
And though I put my trust in Christ
And felt His spirit move in my life
I know it’s truly just a taste
Of His glory in another place, oh, oh, oh