20 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.
Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.
I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.
A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.
“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”
“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.
“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.
I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.
“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.
“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.
The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.
I wanted to wake up and go home.
20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.
And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?
But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.
With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?
The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.
But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.” At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.