I find it rather fascinating that certain memories remain crystal clear in our minds, no matter how old we get. And even though I have 26 year’s worth of memories stored, that moment in the Franklin High hallway, where Fellowship Bible used to meet, is as vivid as ever. 4th grade. He was this goofy looking kid with big teeth and glasses. And he was funny. And despite all my best efforts to come off as tough and mean, I was secretly in love with him. And it hurt so much when he said my freckles were ugly. But I mean, I can’t really blame him for saying it. I kept calling him “four-eyes” and he hated that. The name calling only stopped because we made the Sunday school teacher cry. Such a devastating moment as a 9 year old, then, is now remembered fondly, even with laughter. Who makes their Sunday school teacher cry? Well, I guess Leland and I do.
But it’s a good thing she cried that day.
Because as the name calling ended, a friendship began. And Leland became a staple in my life and a staple in our group of friends. A group that would remain intact all through middle and high school. A group that went on every church retreat together, rode bikes into the lake, sat under the teaching of incredible youth pastors, participated in the epic food fights, taught each other how to drive (or not drive) a stick shift, and even follow each other to different schools. Those years shaped me. Those friends were a part of all of the awkward “figure out who the heck you are” seasons.
One such memorable, awkward night was Brentwood’s Homecoming dance, our sophomore year. I was Leland’s date. Ok, but really, all six of us just went as a group. And we showed up, all primped and polished (or as much as sophomores in high school can be) and our mouths fell open as we walked into the cafeteria. Loud rap music, very short dresses, dancing we had never seen in real life. The boys turned and looked at each other and without hesitation said, “We’re getting out of here!”
I went back through some of my old journals this weekend and I opened up to the first journal entry in one of them. Lo and behold – it was an entry about this very homecoming night in 2005. The best part is that I documented the moment we were leaving and the three of us girls were lamenting that fact that the guys had just spent $10 per ticket to get us in and we were literally turning around and leaving again. The entry reads, “And then Leland said, ‘Ten dollars is not more important than Jordyn’s innocence!’ and I’ve never wanted to hug him more.”
I kid you not. That happened. It still makes me chuckle when I read it.
But that was Leland for you. Quick on his feet with the funny comments, but also secretly (or not so secretly) the sweetest guy you would ever meet. Aware of what his friends needed. Quick to value people first and foremost.
And that never changed. We didn’t stay as close of friends after we graduated high school. I guess that happens right? We’re off on the college adventure, making new friends, trying to figure out this thing called a career path. But even so, whenever I would see him, it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. And there was always something comforting and familiar about his hugs, bright smile, and genuine questions about how I was doing.
The last time I saw him was a few Christmases ago, when I ran into him at Starbucks early one morning. I was home from Kenya for a few weeks and he was so excited to hear about the work I was doing there. It was always so good to see him and catch up, even if for a few minutes.
So when the phone call came on Monday that he was gone, it felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. And in so doing, had punched a hole in my childhood and all the memories from the age of 8 to 18. And if I’m being honest, I’m still in denial that this is true. This time eight days ago, Leland was alive, but now I’m in some sort of twilight zone and he’s no longer here.
As with any loss, you want the world to stop. But it doesn’t.
And you still have to go to work and be a responsible adult. And make decisions. And actually get out of bed when the alarm goes off. And stand in front of your students and try to teach them the lesson you prepared. And you brace yourself for the next wave of emotion that’s going to take you under. And all you can do is let out a cry of pain, with words that are not understandable, and fight off the feeling that you’re suffocating. Fingers tight on your throat.
I know this is a process. And I know that I need to acknowledge the feelings I have, which is in part why I am even writing all of this down. This pain is real. This loss is real. Things are not ok. And that’s ok to admit.
I also want to declare the fact that there is good that can come from such a horrific situation. And the way Leland’s death has brought all of those who love him together. Reuniting a community of believers. Reminding us of what is most important – Jesus. And the people He came to save.
Life is fragile. We hear that all the time. And I think somewhere in our brains we kind of get it. But we don’t actually live this way. We take our hours for granted and we assume tomorrow is coming. But what if it doesn’t? Have I lived fully? Loved deeply? Did I choose people over projects and to-do lists? Did I say what needed to be said, even if it was scary? Did I persevere in the difficult and frustrating moments, because the end goal was worth it? Did I look a little more like Jesus today than I did yesterday?
And if the answer is no to any of these questions, how do I make some changes and live differently?
It’s been said many times over the course of this week, but I’ll say it again. Leland lived with reckless abandon. At 110%. No regrets. No holds barred. The kind of guy that entered the room and everybody knew it. And it wasn’t because he demanded the attention, but because it was given authentically. You couldn’t help but be drawn to his vibrant smile, ridiculous jokes, and contagious laugh.
It sucks that he’s not here. And I can’t help but grieve the loss of his future. 26 is simply too young. I ache to think about his siblings because he was SUCH a great big brother and they deserved to have more years of his influence in their lives. But I am incredibly grateful that God is not surprised by any of this. He knew Leland’s days before he took his first breath. And He promises to work all things for good, for those that love Him. And so I rest in that.
I don’t at all pretend to have this figured out. But I can trust in a Creator who does.
Frankly, Leland had a better day today than I did. You have to stop and think – what is he seeing right now? Experiencing? I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Eternal perfection.
So for those of us he left behind – we can rest in the knowledge that his life is not over, simply relocated to a much better place. Singing praises to the Savior of the world. And I’m sure telling Jesus a few corny jokes too. 🙂
Gosh, I miss you Leland. But I am so incredibly grateful for the memories we shared. And for this wake up call to live more passionately, intentionally, and fearlessly than ever. Your life continues to ripple through the countless people you’ve impacted and your love for the Lord did not go unnoticed. Thank you for loving others so well.
I will see you soon, “four eyes.” 😉