It’s a gifty time of year. So I am thinking about some of the best gifts I have ever received. I don’t think I came from, or landed in an extravagant gift-giving kind of family. Gosh, you know I love my husband. I’m not really complaining when I tell you that he Christmas shops for me at Walgreens. He’s really proud of that too. Not because it’s economical. But, because when I open (no, I mean, when I pull out of a plastic bag) the socks, lotion, chocolate and knock off perfume, he feels like he has out done himself, again.
I like these gifts. Turn about is fair play though. Scott gets roughly the same type of gifts from me; or, no gifts at all. So, when I’m thinking about really great gifts, I need to think about things that are not tangible. Things that come from God. God tells us “All good things come from Him”. Do you believe that? I do.
One of the best gifts God has given my family and me was “Ryan”. Today I want to tell you about Ryan. It’s kind of a long story; this will read less like a blog post and more like a short story. If you’re in the mood for a story, and have some extra time this Christmas, maybe you’d like to join me. Thanks for doing that.
Ryan is my sister’s son. He was the cutest little boy, curly hair and melty brown eyes. That kid was born with a serious case of the sillies too. Maybe that’s why I had such a soft spot for him. When Ryan was about 4 years old, his dad Graduated from the University of Milwaukee. Ryan’s last name is “Wahl”. His Dad’s name is “Tom”. His dad was one of the last in line to be announced in the world’s longest graduation ceremony. Poor Ryan, that boy was wiggly. He had to sit still for so long. He was miserable. We told him that as soon as we heard “Tom Wahl”, we could leave. No problem. Ryan stood on his chair and yelled, “Tom Waaaahhhlllll” as loud as he could, for the entire auditorium to hear.
Ryan was not just a normal little kid kind of silly. He was legit, funny-silly. I remember being on a trip up to Yosemite with Ryan and family. He and I were telling absurd knock-knock jokes. He made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breath. I remember thinking the other adults were getting annoyed with him. I mean, annoyed with me. I mean, annoyed with us. I wanted to say to those adults, “Are you hearing this kid? He is hilarious!”
We took a lot of vacations with Ryan and his family. I have clear memories of Ryan’s silly antics and his silly/horrible lack of fear. I had little to no experience as a mom back then. Ryan had a knack for putting himself in precarious situations that made me weak in the knees: sprinting along the side of the deep end, trying to wiggle away from us in the lake after sunset, or jumping from boulder to boulder. That kid made me a nervous wreck! His parents are way braver and more adventurous than me. They would always at least appear calm.
When Ryan was a teenager it looked like his future was gonna be a crap shoot; could go any direction. He was really, really smart. He was too smart to fall for any generic platitudes, and too smart to do things a certain way just because that’s the way they had always been done. He really liked adventure too. All those qualities makes for a kind of scary combination in a young teenage boy.
Ryan’s mom and dad lost some sleep thinking of ways to keep Ryan on the right track. They prayed, and prayed and prayed. Then God told them what to do. He said, “Send Ryan to go see his Grandparents and cousins!” So, they did. That was such a fun summer. My kids spent a lot of time with Ryan. He was like the Pied Piper. He led. They followed. Ryan didn’t understand age constraints. He could carry on an intelligent debate with his Aunt and Uncle, or play sidewalk chalk with his 2nd grade cousin. Either way, he was a happy guy.
My kids loved Ryan so much. When he walked through the door, the fun could begin. Sometimes he talked them into things that cost them all a little trouble, but our kids for sure thought the trouble was worth it. We were really sad to see him go back home that summer. Thankfully, you could always count on the Wahls for frequent visits.
Over the years, my kids were always the saddest when they had to say good bye to Ryan and his family. I came up with a name for it. I called it the “Post Wahl Blues”. Ryan made his way through high school. All that praying worked. He chose the right track. Sure, he was still fully anti-establishment: rejecting the injustice of wearing shoes, a head full of dreadlocks, and playing guitar in public places. But, something else totally refreshing had taken hold of him. He was phsyched about Jesus. He spent hours reading literature by Christian authors like C.S. Lewis. And, he put some serious miles on his Bible too. Now, when my kids saw him he was as much fun as he had always been, but he also had something deeper to share.
One summer, Ryan visited us and as usual the time was filled with wrestling matches with his uncle, rugby, volleyball and singing along with Ryan as he played worship songs on his guitar. We had an anniversary celebration that summer for my parents. Ryan organized the cousins and had them sing songs and create a recording for his Grandparents. If you’ve never heard a bunch of rough and tumble boy cousins singing, “My Chains are Gone”, you should. That’s the kind of stuff you can think on and be happy about when life roughs you up a bit.
On that visit Eddie was a young teenager. He was a bit of a wild card himself, and his parents didn’t know which direction his life would go. Ryan told Eddie that it was okay to have fun, but Ryan said we have to measure our words, and use a filter. Those words carried a heck of a lot more weight from cousin Ryan than they did from Eddie’s folks. I remember being so grateful for the help, That was the last serious conversation Ryan would ever have with Eddie.
Ryan died in a climbing accident just before Easter in 2012. He was 20-years-old. By the time Ryan died, he was working with the youth at his church, serving the homeless and considering full time missions as a career. It was the saddest day of my family’s life.
On the day he died I was with Scott’s family. We were eating out and I saw that I had a half dozen missed calls from various people in my family. I called my oldest sister back. When I reached her I was by myself in the entryway of the restaurant. My sister said, “Ryan was rock climbing. He fell. He didn’t make it.”
I threw my hand up in the air for Scott to see; I needed him to know that I was about to drown. I fell on the ground hard and started making a strange noise in my effort to breath. Scott finished the phone call while my children and Scott’s family hovered around me. I was hyperventilating and crying. I remember thinking that I needed to get up and stop scaring the children. I also thought we needed to take our kids home so that we could tell them privately. My father-in-law helped me up. He walked me to the car. I stopped once to throw up. All the way home my body was shaking involuntarily. The kids just kept staring at me with fear in their eyes.
When we got home we sat our kids on the couch together, and we told them. For a very long time we had our arms full of our children crying and sobbing, sobbing and crying. It was so sad. It is so sad. It’s hard to go back.
Ryan’s funeral was unlike any experience we have had or ever will have again in our lives. Turns out that we were not the only ones who thought Ryan was extraordinary. He impacted thousands of people, and they all said the same thing: There is absolutely no one like Ryan. His faith was so unique, fresh and real. He was the kind of Christian that Jesus described: serving others, authentic, real.
Now we’re trying to live without Ryan. We want him back. If I could figure out how to go back and change the course of things to get him back, I would do it. His life was a gift to us. Not just because we enjoyed him while he was here, but because he impacted the spiritual lives of my children more than anything probably ever will. What more does a mother desire?
I can take care of my children’s physical needs. I can excel in doing all the motherly things a mom loves to do. But, I have no control over my children’s souls. They have to decide for themselves what they believe, and where faith fits in their lives.
When my boys were little, I remember praying with them at night and asking God to help them develop a genuine faith. I asked out loud for God to help the boys know that they did not need to fake it or pretend. Because, let’s face it, in our home (and a lot of homes like ours) Christianity is as much a part of our culture as it is a personal, genuine life giving source. Faking happens.
After I said that prayer, I remember Zeke saying he would never fake loving God. Eddie called down from the top bunk and told us he would definitely fake it. He said he faked it all the time. Ahhh…I thought that my prayer must have been inspired. Honesty is so healthy.
Ryan did not fake anything. He didn’t do anything simply because that’s what he was expected to do. He didn’t sit in church like a robot, putting his time in so that he could maybe get to heaven some day. Nope, Ryan read Christ’s Words. He read them, meditated on them, and acted on them. When Ryan worshiped Christ, he was expressive, because he knew he was literally at the feet of his Savior. He chose to put his faith in Christ, and that faith was active, alive and obvious in the choices he made and the relationships he kept.
Ryan left this lasting impression of what faith looks in the minds of my children. Now, I see them moving ahead with life, embracing this truth for themselves. I sometimes wonder at the things they say. My heart rejoices as I talk to them and understand that they are gaining strength to handle life by fostering their own authentic relationships with God. I know it isn’t because of anything we’ve done as their parents. I know that it is in large part due to the influence God allowed Ryan to have in their lives. And THAT is a gift I will be thanking God for the rest of my life.