by J. Daniel Sims
photo credit: Brant Copen
We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.
(C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed)
It is a rare peaceful, sunny afternoon on a usually rainy, usually war-torn hilltop in Northern Myanmar when I break down for the first time on my new life path.
These last six months brought me closer to the dead and dying and at a greater frequency than many Americans will ever experience. This exposure shook something loose in me, ultimately transforming the way I view and approach life. But this death, across 10,000 miles of ocean, was different, closer somehow.
My family is all together now, minus two key people. One of them is me.
I was the first grandson and for 20 months thrived as the sole treasure of the family. Then Andrew was born. Even before my sister, Andrew was my first playmate. He was a meaningful part of every memory with Mom’s side of the family tree.
Most of our interactions took place at the “farm,” my grandfather’s yawning plot of west Texas clay. My visits to the farm were often separated by large periods of time, gaps which grew in length as the years wore on. Proximity ultimately stifled the full development of our friendship, but I always considered Andrew the closest thing I had to a brother.
Andrew lived near the farm, and every month my family would come to visit. We would always pick up right where we left off: exploring the fields, playing hide n’ go seek in the farmhouse, trying for hours just to get a single ball through the towering, rusty, old basketball net.
As time passed, the monthly trips turned into every few months, but the fun only increased as my sister and his brother joined the ranks: camping in the fields, building a fortress in the barn, throwing apples at the cows, two-on-two at the rusty, old basketball net.
Then we moved north and only made it out to the farm a couple of times a year. But whenever we did, everything was beautifully unchanged. Our club of cousins really was family: 4-wheeling around the fields, fishing by the tank, climbing races to the top of the rusty, old basketball net.
But twice a year turned to once, and once to “when we can,” and the assembly of our childhood army lost its regularity. Nearly two years had passed when I headed back to the farm for Pappaw’s funeral. A fifth cousin, Andrew’s youngest brother, had long been added to the ranks and was now six years old. Somewhere along the way, we had all grown up, Andrew perhaps the most visibly.
During Pappaw’s final days, Andrew had grown into a leader at the farm and in life. He was excelling at university and prepping for law school (a veritable family tradition). At home, he was looking after his brothers and spending a lot of time with a special girl named Ashley.
That summer he had stopped by the old house every day to check in on Mammaw and Pappaw. Whether to bring them the mail, or deliver some groceries, or just to say hi, he was there. The farm became just another place where he could make a difference: plowing the fields, taking care of the cows, thoughtfully repainting the rusty old basketball net.
I was thoroughly impressed by the changes in Andrew’s life, changes I was actively seeking in my own. Though time certainly forced its way between us, the friendship was just as we remembered.
I’ll never forget my last trip to the farm. Andrew and I were worn out from spending an hour or so trying to dunk on a refinished – yet unmistakably old – basketball net. (I never quite got it, but I think he did.)
We headed around the house and met the other three cousins. The five of us just sat there under the flag, tossing a football, and enjoying each other’s company for the rest of the afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how lucky I was to have such a family, so separated by time and distance, but still – in many ways – so beautifully close.
As the sun set, we hugged our goodbyes and headed back to school and life on opposite sides of the world. That was the last time I heard from Andrew.
There I sat, alone and confused on this hillside in Northern Myanmar, seeking in this strange land the sort of personal transformation which became real for Andrew in his own home town.
My family was all together, minus two key people. One of them was me.
Editor’s Note: This essay was excerpted from Sims’s new book WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance, which was released on April 1st. I had the privilege of reading an early copy of the manuscript and gave this endorsement:
“In Wanderlost, Jacob tells a story that is so particular it becomes universal, especially for the traveler or the globally minded Christ-follower. But anyone who has searched for meaning, identity, or community will find in him a fellow seeker. At times hilarious and at times painful, Wanderlost is at all times compelling.” –Elizabeth Trotter
J. Daniel Sims currently serves as Country Director of International Justice Mission (IJM) Cambodia, where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, and programmatic and operational staff in the fight against violent labor exploitation. Concurrently with his role at IJM, he serves as a Non-Resident Fellow at Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation, a leading institute bridging the worlds of research and practice in the global peace-building and justice space. Sims is frequently drawn upon for expert commentary on various human rights and global development challenges. His analysis has featured in The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, LA Times, Al Jazeera, VICE World News, Sydney Morning Herald, ProPublica, The American Interest, Plough, The Hill, and World News Group.