He stood before the congregation and stared at the words on the paper. He had warned the music director to be ready with a hymn in case he broke down and could not speak. He felt a welling in his chest. He looked out at the sympathetic faces, their pursed lips, their sad eyes, a few already wiping away tears, and suddenly he did not know which was harder, to lose a football-playing son on the eve of his biggest game or to try, as he had been doing all his life, to ask God to make sense of it all.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord . . .” he began.
In recent days, the Rev. Maury De Young had returned to the woods where he and his son, Derrick, often hunted. He walked the leaf-covered paths near Sand Lake. He tracked no animals, nor did he fire at anything. “I just sat under a tree and wept,” he said.
On one trip north, he stopped to see an old friend, a man who, like himself, had grown up on a farm. The friend saw his grief and said to him, “Maury, look me in the eye. I have a question to ask you.”
Maury pushed his eyes forward.
“Why the early harvest?”
Maury began to weep.
“Why the early harvest?”
In the suburb of Kentwood, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, on a street where there are more churches than traffic lights, it is a question that echoes with no answer. Why the early harvest of Derrick De Young? He was only 16, such a promising athlete, 6-feet-1, with a rifle pitching arm and a knack for football tackling and an infectious habit of talking, talking, talking that made him popular in locker rooms and gave him an inner circle of what his father called “50 or 60 close friends,” one of whom was driving his Honda too fast on a Friday evening when he lost control and rolled the vehicle and smashed into a tree and opened his eyes to see Derrick De Young, his teammate and passenger, still bound by his seat belt, slumped over, dying.
They airlifted him out. They scanned his brain. The signs were grim. Word spread quickly. Soon, as happens in small communities, the hospital was filled with friends, relatives, teammates and coaches, taking their places as if filling up church pews, until the corridors echoed with mumbled prayers.
And night fell. And the news grew bleaker. And finally the Rev. De Young, along with his wife and four other children, whispered good-bye to the baby of their family. In that final moment, looking over his son’s body, the minister was only a man and the man was only a father, and the father said through tears he could not hold back, “I love you, Derrick. I am going to miss you. .
He emerged to a world turned upside down: The minister was being prayed for, the congregation came to him, and the “Why, God?” question was burning in his soul. He was 53, his son was 16, yet the old would bury the young in a too-early harvest, just a few weeks before Christmas.
Divinity in rivers and trees
“Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la. . . .”
Two skinny blond children finished their song, then ran to the door. Their parents followed, bundled against the cold.
A group of them, all members of the Kelloggsville Christian Reformed Church, had returned from Christmas caroling in the neighborhood and had gathered for hot chocolate. The Rev. De Young had stayed behind, apologetic, saying, “I’m not much of a singer,” although they all knew that was not the reason.
A man said all the doors were locked, and the pastor need only shut off the lights on his way out. The Rev. De Young nodded, and soon he was alone with his visitor.
He walked through the empty building, showing the sanctuary and the kitchen and the offices and Sportspersons center, which he had started years ago for people like himself, lovers of the Lord and the outdoors. They began with 35 people and a videotape. Now they had hundreds of members and a small archery range in the church basement.
The Rev. De Young, a soft-spoken man with thinning reddish hair and “you can talk to me” eyes, reminds one of the minister in Norman Maclean’s beautiful story “A River Runs Through It.” De Young, too, finds divinity in the rivers and trees and feels that God’s words are out there, in the stones beneath the water.
Derrick, his son, loved the outdoors, too. He and his father planned to go hunting after the state semifinal football game Nov. 23. It never happened. Derrick died that morning.
The night before, at the hospital, the Rev. De Young had told the coach and the players of South Christian High School that they should play their game no matter what, that they had “come so far,” that “Derrick would have wanted that,” and so they played it through tears and they played it hard, and even though Derrick wasn’t there to play defensive back and special teams, they won it by scoring 42 points.
It so happens that Derrick’s number was 42.
And one week later, at the Pontiac Silverdome, Derrick’s older brother, Tim, who had already graduated high school, was asked to lead the South Christian team onto the field wearing his brother’s jersey and pointing to the heavens. And the players, wearing memorial 42s on their helmets, rolled to one touchdown after another after another, until finally, with less than five minutes left, their kicker booted an extra point, and the stadium erupted with its loudest cheer of the day.
South Christian had beaten Riverview for the state championship.
That kick gave South Christian 42 points.
Drawing wisdom from the sky
“Did you ever have to counsel a parent who had lost a teenage son?” the Rev. De Young was asked in the church’s meeting room.
“Once,” he recalled, “when I was practicing in Mason City, Iowa. A mother, who was divorced, had a boy who was dying of cancer. He’d been such a strong, athletic kid — just a couple of years older than Derrick.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Well, I really didn’t know what to say. Then one night, I was driving back from their house, and the moon was behind a gray cloud. And suddenly, it emerged from the cloud and was the brightest light. It was just so dazzling. And I thought, this is what that young man is going through. Under the cloud of cancer, everything was dark, but there was this bright home just waiting for him up there. He was ready. He wanted to go.”
The Rev. De Young paused. “He died that night.”
Derrick De Young joined his father’s church officially when he was 11 years old. He was the kind of kid who wore his faith proudly and casually, like a favorite sweatshirt. He mixed religion and football into the same conversation, he offered prayers before hunting and prayers before eating and, like his father, he seemed drawn most to people without religion who might need it. But he was also a typical teen who loved sports and ate candy and fell asleep on the couch so often he earned the nickname “Sleepin’ Homes.” And he wore a playful T-shirt that read, “Life is short. Pray hard.”
Maury De Young remembered that shirt now. His voice choked.
“We never saw much significance in those words . . . until now.”
‘It could happen to anyone’
On 52nd Street S.E., where the Rev. De Young’s congregation is located, the houses blink with Christmas lights, and some churches feature nativity scenes on their snow-covered lawns.
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and in the De Young household, the family tradition of reading the Christmas story will feel heavy and strained, and the moment when someone lights a candle “in honor of those who are already in heaven” might be too much to bear.
The South Christian football team gave the game ball to Derrick’s family. The team printed championship T-shirts with 42 on the sleeve. The teammate who was driving the Honda has apologized so often — “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” — that the De Youngs are concerned for him and have told the courts they cast no blame on his actions.
“It could happen to anyone,” the Rev. De Young said.
So could the loss of a child. But until late November, it had always happened to someone else, and De Young was there for that family’s comfort, its needs, its broken hearts.
Now the man of comfort finds himself feeling awkward, concerned that his sadness is depressing his congregants. He tends to his family, his wife, Cheryl, a registered nurse, and their four other children — Michelle, Lisa, Chris and Tim. And they tend to him.
He sees Derrick all the time in his head now, hitting a baseball, making a tackle, riding north with him to the woods, talking the whole way up. Sleep comes only sporadically. One night, Maury rose at 2:30 a.m. and read the entire book of Leviticus. In those dark hours, when he asks himself why God would let this happen to such a beautiful boy, he can only conclude the following: “If God were small enough for me to understand, he wouldn’t be God.”
In “A River Runs Through It,” Maclean wrote of his father, also a minister, and of his brother, who also would die young, and how the woods and fishing became the bond among them: “We could walk the hills with my father while he unwound between services. He never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ And we answered together . . .
‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have. . . . In the hills he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon.” Maury De Young, after walking his own hills, returned to his evening sermon last week, his first time back before the congregation. And he finished that story about his old friend and the early harvest.
“Think about it,” the friend had said. “What does God get if he takes you or me? We’re old and of no use to him.
“But Maury,” he said, “look at what God is getting with your son.”
The minister smiled. It helps to think of Derrick as chosen for something special, as needed in heaven, as young, strong, funny, talkative. Who wouldn’t want a kid like that?
He closes up the church, turning off the lights on his way out. Somehow, the De Youngs will get through this Christmas. And Sunday morning, a football player’s father will stand before the congregation and do what he was put here to do, teaching faith through a broken heart, hoping the moon emerges from behind a cloud.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).