Thursday, May 19, 2011

Encouragement in tragic memory

Sometimes, over the years, you lose track of people. We all do it, some more so than others: Folks we once were close to vanish into our pasts, separated first by distance, later by time.

Then, suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, their memory erupts fresh into your mind again, and you pause to regret losing touch, to rue the loss of that fellowship and friendship that once seemed so close.

Perhaps, as has been the case with me in recent years, the regret at losing contact is a result of middle age, when some of us look back at what could have been but wasn’t and wonder if the decisions so confidently made so many years ago were indeed the right ones.

In my case, those questions gave rise to a longing to reach out across distance and time to renew those friendships. Some have met with success, others to no avail.

Facebook has helped me in that regard.

In the early 1990s, my wife and I lived in Fort Collins, Colo., and in the four years we lived there, we became good friends with a number of people at First Free Methodist Church of Fort Collins, which we attended.

The memories of our years there – more so of the people we knew and came to love during those four years – are as sweet as any for which you could hope. I came to think of some of the men with whom I worshiped and studied the Bible as big brothers – for one, nearly all of them were taller than me, but more so because the examples they set and the encouragement they offered helped inspire me to grow in my faith.

The Facebook account I opened some months ago has helped me renew some of those connections, although one remained elusive until Wednesday evening, after the police memorial service I attended as a journalist prompted me to resume my search.

The Elgin Police Memorial in downtown Elgin, Ill., served to remember officers who have died in the line of duty, and to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line each day as they don their uniforms and pin on their badges.

As a journalist, I learned years ago that these men and women deserve respect – they have to deal with a lot of things most of us seldom see. Sometimes they crack under the pressure – I knew one who did in Rawlins, Wyo. Most of the time, however, these officers shine. Some days they die, or nearly die, while shining in spite of this pressure.

So it was on a Sunday morning one summer day in 1992 when an angry man marched into the church during the day’s second service and started an argument in the sanctuary with his ex-wife.

They went into the parking lot just as I headed inside, carrying some coffee gear that had been on a table outside for the regular social time between services. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw Mike Swihart, a Fort Collins police officer who was off duty that morning, follow the couple outside.

When the gunfire began, I froze for a moment or two before heading out a side door to see what was going on, and of course what I found was horror.

The man had shot his wife to death – the police said later she died instantly, but that’s not what I remember seeing as a nurse in our congregation tried desperately to keep her alive.

And I recall vividly another member of the congregation using just his thumb and index finger to hold a gun – it turned out to be Mike’s – which he then tossed under a car in the parking lot. He was in tears.

The gunman was on the ground writhing in pain, and Mike was standing off to the side, standing with one hand to his shoulder, the other to his lower abdomen, with what to me looked like an expression of surprise. It was not until I approached that I realized he had been shot twice in a shootout that began when he intervened to stop further bloodshed. Ray Michelena and I stepped up to hold Mike steady as we awaited the ambulance. A cowboy named Toxie Dearman cleared a table in case Mike needed to lie down while awaiting the ambulance.

My eyes sting even now as I recall that bloody, bloody, blue-sky summer day 19 years ago. Those images haunted me each night for weeks afterward and continued to plague me on and off for many months beyond that.

I’m told that was post-traumatic stress.

But I also remember visiting Mike at the hospital in the days afterward. Mike was a cop then, but he also is a man of faith, and even while confined to his hospital bed, he reached out to others like myself who were trying to come to grips with and understand this tragedy. He encouraged us with his own faith and love.

To say that my appreciation for his sacrifice that day is great would be an immense understatement. The gunman came into our church with several more ammo clips in his jacket pocket; he apparently was ready to do even more harm than he did. Mike well may have staved off a far greater tragedy than that which occurred.

As I remember, Mike was not in the hospital long, and he returned to work far more quickly than his doctors – or any of us – really expected.

After listening Wednesday afternoon to the prayers, remarks and remembrances offered at the Elgin Police Memorial, I found myself remembering Mike.

So when I got home, I searched Facebook again. This time, I found his wife’s profile and that of his older daughter, and sent them both invitations to be friends, along with a note sharing my warmest regards and that I was thinking of them.

His daughter surprised me – she must have been checking her Facebook account soon after I sent the invitation, for she “friended” me and remembered me far better than I imagined she would – even down to my love for Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Her memory of me was an encouragement alone. I was a step nearer to getting back in touch.

And that is where I find myself taking encouragement from Mike once again, 19 years after that awful Sunday morning.

The past five months have had their ups and downs, but the longer I go unemployed, the more resumes I send out without responses, the more discouraged I feel. In this time, I have read articles about employers leery of hiring experienced workers like myself or reluctant to consider hiring someone with related skills but with experience in another profession. I have also read stories quoting some human resources personnel as saying those who have been unemployed six months or longer are untouchable – essentially, that if they have not found a job in that time, it must be because no one else would consider hiring them.

As if the faltering economy or the news industry’s cascade of failures trying to adapt to the Internet were not enough to kill most jobs in my profession, now I am somehow to blame, too, for not finding a job more quickly.

But during Wednesday’s memorial, I remembered a cop who sacrificed much – he nearly made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet he got up again after he healed and went back to work, encouraging and loving those around him as he did so.

As I write this, it is now early Thursday morning. In my heart, I know God has my back, just as surely as I know that I love my family and friends dearly. I bet I can get up later today and ship out a few more resumes. Maybe one of them will make the difference.

And perhaps one of the laid-off or stressed-out journalists who read my weekly musings will take encouragement from my words, as I once did from Mike’s.

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."
John 15:13