Unless you love someone, nothing else makes sense. —e.e. cummings
I’m still making sense of what happened to me that weekend in 1993. I know love—its many leaves blazing, changing, filtering sunlight like the autumn trees—was involved.
Naples, Utah, felt like an alien planet. Alfalfa cloyed the senses; water flowed uphill over red earth. I’d come here for a fall holiday to see the boy I loved, who’d kissed me goodbye as he left to help his grandparents with their farm. The tight-knuckled, dirt-caked, hard-worked man I met on my arrival was a new creature, as alien as his new home. When Tom was near I stammered, blushed as if we’d only just met.
On Friday afternoon, when we first arrived, I walked over hard dirt roads to the fields where Tom was working. The combine harvester he drove moved like a leviathan through the deep green corn. I feared for him.
Tom’s best friend, Jordan, was entertaining me while Tom spent Saturday working his Grandpa Nelson’s farm. We played cards, talked, watched a movie. We had a lot of fun, but my mind kept straying to Tom and that big machine. That afternoon, when sirens shrieked past Jordan’s living room window and faded south, I knew whom they were wailing toward. Jordan and I looked at each other.
“It’s Tom,” I said.
We raced to Jordan’s rusty green F150 and scrambled in. My fear thickened when we skidded to a stop in the gravel in front of Grandpa Nelson’s house. The drive and street were full—a fire truck, flashing police cars, an ambulance with the back doors just closing, concerned neighbors—and I couldn’t see him. I leaped from the passenger door, pushed my way through the crowd, saw Grandpa Nelson crying, looked for Tom. Tiptoed. Searched. The ambulance shot out onto the street, lights and sirens alive. A rough hand caught my elbow and I turned to see tear-lines cutting furrows down the dirt on Tom’s face. I exhaled for what felt like the first time since we’d left Jordan’s house.
“It’s okay. You’re okay,” I breathed as he pulled me close.
Jordan found us.
“Braden. He got pulled under,” Tom managed to say, his face pained.
Tom and Jordan’s eyes locked. Braden was the towheaded, blue-eyed eight-year-old who lived across the street. He liked to visit neighbors. He was everyone’s little brother, everyone’s friend.
Police cars rolled away. Neighbors stumbled home. We crammed into Jordan’s truck to follow the line of cars to the hospital. Tom managed to tell the story as we drove. His Grandpa Nelson had been driving the John Deere 9230, the one with two separate rows of giant tires, when Braden came to visit him. Grandpa didn’t see Braden as he ran toward the tractor. Braden’s tiny body had been pulled under, crushed.
Jordan turned into the hospital parking lot and stopped at the emergency room doors.
“I’ll let you know,” Tom said as he forced himself out of the truck.
Jordan and I waited in the truck. I watched cars fill the small-town hospital’s parking lot. Neighbors walked in with their arms around each other. As I watched this community pull together, I felt like I was intruding on their private grief. The relief I felt at Tom’s safety doubled the sense of myself as a stranger.
The western sky burned in sunset hues of orange and red when Tom reappeared. His brown boots beat heavy on the concrete, his shoulders drooped, his head stayed down as the emergency room doors slid closed behind him.
“There was nothing they could do,” he whispered as he slid in beside me. “He’s gone.”
I held his hand. He laid his head on my shoulder and we cried. I had seen him cry twice in the ten months we’d known each other, both times that day.
In the bright light of morning, I watched in awe as Tom’s grandpa sat on a faded yellow couch and held hands with Braden’s mother. She gave him love and free forgiveness, reassured him, expressed faith in eternity. The heartbroken circle told stories about a spunky, outgoing Braden, a boy filled with laughter. Braden had loved Grandpa Nelson. They had been buddies since Braden was old enough to walk across the street. This time he was bringing cookies because he thought his friend would be hungry after the harvest day.
I watched his mother. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, heaven and earth had rent open, left her to deal with the senseless loss of her child. I could not grasp her stillness. She, who had every reason for hurt and anger, offered comfort, smiled, sat straight and sure. She gave Grandpa Nelson a framed picture of him and Braden eating watermelon. Pink juice spilled all the way down Braden’s skinny neck.
I held Tom’s hand, traced the lines of his Sabbath-clean fingers. This was my first taste of love, this Thomas. Earlier that morning we had talked about our first son, assumed him inevitable. We agreed to name him Braden Frank.
What did I know then, at age fifteen, of love, of life, in the shadow of this mother and grandfather’s love and grief? My eyes flashed a snapshot, bored the image deep into my flesh—flickering yellow autumn light, hands held tight in grief, forgiveness. There was no way for me to make sense of the loss, begin to fathom the ache I saw before me that day. I was just at the beginning of the stretching of my heart, could not know the way it would become putty, knot and unknot, tear and break, expand to hold love upon love upon love.
On that day, though, my eyes were tuned to see all of the burning colors of love. It was then I learned that in the face of all that is senseless, love is the only sense.