When Red Taillights Go Out

Several months ago I wrote the following in my journal as I tried to process the deaths of a pair of friends and one of their children in a car accident. We weren’t especially close. I hadn’t seen them in years. But the tragedy still rattled me from a distance for some reason. So, like I usually do, I worked through it in writing. I came across the journal entry recently. I thought it may be a good share.

Isle of Skye, Scotland; Jul 2010

Adam, Elizabeth, and 10 year-old Jane died in a car accident yesterday morning on a long, straight interstate in Texas. Lights went out inside me when I heard. We haven’t seen them since we were their neighbors out West years ago. We’ve communicated here and there on social media since then, but even from a distance they were all-too-rare rays of light in the murkiness of modernity. They found wonder and joy in everyday life and managed to share it widely without coming across as sanctimonious or smug. That’s hard to do. How can you miss somebody so hard who you didn’t see or touch or hear? I don’t know for sure, but I do.

The news reports on kitschy small town Texas media websites said their car slid across the median of I-40 and into an oncoming RV.

What do you think about in the spin and the noise? Do you feel sadness? Fear? Love? Or just glass, plastic, bone, and cold? Three of their kids lived, mom and dad and a daughter did not.

The age-old question bounces around my brain -- why? A couple seconds earlier or later and maybe they would’ve whirled into a break in traffic. If there’s a median in the freeway there, maybe there’s still a complete family too.

Surely God could’ve intervened somehow? But He didn’t, and I don’t know why. I’m okay with that. I guess those who will not abide the mystery of why and when God steps in, and why and when He doesn’t, spell His name with a lowercase g. Those willing to accept the existence of unknowables go on believing, even when reality doesn’t make any sense.

The truth is that things just happen. This accident isn’t God’s fault. It’s the fault of momentum, friction, trajectory, velocity, laws of motion, physics, gravity. Cold and uncaring forces that act on the culpable the same as the blameless. I choose to give God credit when things go well and blame something else when they don’t, however irrational that may be. Is it foolish, blasphemous, to show mercy toward God like that? Maybe. But I need mercy so bad, and so I try to give it, even to a God that doesn’t need it.

Twenty years ago I drove a big white Buick filled with my college friends through the northern Utah emptiness, a lot of miles from anywhere, on a lonely stretch of freeway in the middle of a cold night. The starry sky spit a few tiny snowflakes, benign and sparse. Then the wind started to moan a little, the stars went out, and suddenly the night went crazy, thick swirling snow, eating up the pavement. The windshield wipers waved in futile arcs, they couldn’t keep the glass clear. You couldn’t tell where the freeway ended and the rest of the world started.

I drove slow and blind for a long time, somehow keeping the car on the white road and out of the snowy ditches and farmers’ fields and embankments on either side. There was no depth or shadow, just black night and snow flying cruel and cold and insane across the yellow cone of my headlamps.

Then two little red lights blinked on through the whiteout up ahead. I inched closer. They were moving, the taillights on the trailer of a semi truck mowing its way through the storm.

I thought of my dad. He was a truck driver, slow and sure anytime, on any road beneath any sky. He wasn’t in that truck on that invisible highway that night, but I pretended he was, that he knew the way, that he was going to get us home. And I settled in behind those red taillights and didn’t let them go. The night drug on, white and black and blinding, the snow piled up, the truck pushed it aside, and I just followed. If he stayed on the road, so would I. If he drove off a bridge, me too.

I don’t know how much time passed, I ignored time. The world was a set of red taillights. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the snow stopped. The clouds ripped open, the stars glowed cold again on the empty world. We pulled off the highway at a lonely gas station somewhere vacant in Idaho, safe, alive. The truck lumbered on into the middle of the winter night, red taillights slowly disappearing over the curve of the earth. Thank God for red taillights.

Elizabeth and Adam were red taillights. This world is spiralling down. Ugly men peddle fear, bitterness, and anger and call it strength and progress. Many believe them, they think they’ve found answers to their pain, they think the answers are isolation, outrage, violence. An eye for an eye, I guess. In these dark times I follow red taillights wherever I can find them, even when I don’t know I’m following them. People like Adam and Elizabeth responded to darkness with love. Not militant love, indignant love, angry love, because there’s no such thing. They just saw good, and they told you so, without any trace of self-righteousness, and that somehow cut the darkness a little, made it bleed, and it bled light.

Now there’s a pit in my stomach and I can’t see the road. It’s cold and dark tonight. A red taillight went out. I wish it was morning.