There’s an old story about a preacher that I remember from somewhere:
It seems that there was a country preacher who, on every Sunday followed a very precise routine. He woke up, like clockwork, at the exact same time, ate the exact same breakfast, and then sat down to write his sermon for exactly an hour and a half. He always left the house at precisely 9 am.
Well, on this particular Sunday, at precisely 9 am, he went outside to get into his car. As he approached his car, he reached into his left hand pocket to get his keys. They were not there; he had forgotten his keys in the house, for the first time in as long as he could remember.
The preacher turned, walked back into the house, searched for a few minutes and found the keys on the desk where he had been working. Just as he was getting ready to walk back outside, he decided he was thirsty so he went into the kitchen to get a drink of water. Then he thought a moment about going to the bathroom but decided he could wait until he arrived at the church. Satisfied, he got into his car, inserted the key, and drove away.
Along his route to his church stood an old elm tree, a tree that the preacher passed every day, for 20 years, without a thought. And he gave it no thought this day. Even though the night before there was a storm of such intensity that winds caused one of the largest branches on the tree to CRACK under the torque. The branch, the size of a small tree itself, laid balanced, precariously, on smaller branches below and clung to the mother tree by a few strands of wood fiber.
No one noticed this branch. Not even the man who owned the home in front of which stood the elm. He did not notice even though he had just backed out of the driveway, on his way to the same church service.
As the pastor approached the tree, a cat scurried into the road. The preacher, being a good guy and all, applied his brakes and slowed down enough to let the creature pass unharmed. He pushed down on the accelerator and just as he started speeding up, a wind blew with just enough force move the smaller branches upon which the big branch laid. Its balance broken, it started to fall, but held onto the tree by the few wooden fibers.
The preacher drove forward with no apprehension, focused on his sermon. Of course, just as he passed under the tree, the branch finally gave to the law of gravity and crashed toward earth. Unfortunately, it fell just as the preacher’s car passed underneath. With almost surgical precision, the branch sliced through the preachers windshield, struck him, and he died.
And the congregation filled the church and waited for their preacher who never showed. (Here’s the church and here’s the steeple open the door, where the hell is the preacher.)
The nuance of timing.
The preacher died not because of the branch but rather, because he forgot his keys, got a drink of water, decided not to go to the bathroom, slowed down for a cat and accelerated his car at a rate that caused him to arrive right under that branch at the exact moment it was to strike earth.
And here is the problem with timing, you can “what if?” it to death.
“What if?” Two words that acknowledge reality yet call for its change: “what if?”
I have been living, for the last nine and one-half months, with the unshakable, probably irrational belief, that I had a big hand in Zachary’s death.
Until just the other night.
Until I had a dream.
By way of background, I was at Zachary’s apartment on October 16, 2010 the day before the murder. We were trying to figure out how to write something called “Bill Summaries” because that was part of the job he was interviewing for as an intern in Washington, D.C. We worked on that for a bit and when it was time to leave, I asked him if he needed anything further, he smiled and shook his head. I left.
Well, I have been convinced, absolutely convinced, that during that Saturday afternoon, he kinda hinted he wanted to come home. Because I was going to New Mexico the next day, I really ignored that, since bringing him back to his apartment on Sunday morning would have added about 45 minutes to a drive that is already six and a half hours long. How I regret that decision.
Anyway, I have really beaten myself up over that, thinking, you know, “what if” I had taken him home? There was no doubt in my mind that if I had, the timeline would have changed. His murder was such a random act, ten minutes here, five minutes there, could have changed the course of his destiny.
Like the preacher driving down the road, any change in that day’s routine or speed would have saved his life.
And I hated myself for it.
Dreams come in a blink of the mind.
I don’t have many dreams about Zachary, but I had one the other night. In that dream I actually took Zachary home Saturday night but the date of the dream was Sunday, October 17, 2010, the day he was shot. And here is something odd about this dream, it is, of course, from my point of view but I am walking through the morning of October 17, 2010 with complete knowledge of what was about to happen, my memory was complete. For example, I knew he was going to be shot at about 9:30 that night. He acted like he did not.
Dreams are weird.
So it is Sunday morning and we are at the house. His mother had just finished a load of laundry for him and asked if he had any more clothes to wash. He stood up, walked over to a bag and said “a lot.”
Since I knew he was going to be shot later that evening, I started to cry because I thought, “what a waste of time, he does not need any more clean clothes. He should just play some video games with his sisters instead, or we could just talk.”
It’s stupid, I know, but it’s a dream.
So, Zack takes his clothes out of the bag and places them into a laundry basket. He picks the basket up and turns, so I try not to look like I’m crying because I really can’t explain why I am crying. It wasn’t my place. He didn’t know.
As he walked by, I hit him in the arm and said, “So, you gonna close the library down tonight?”
Zack said, “No, I want to be at the apartment around 9:30 to play a guy Halo.” And he smiled. But as he said that I noticed his eyes sorta glowed white, which was dream-weird, and that woke me up with a start.
It was one of those dreams you actually remember upon waking so I laid there for a bit just thinking about how weird that was, when suddenly, I got it.
He wanted to be home at about 9:30. Whether I picked him up and took him home or not, he had some plan and really, I wasn’t going to change that timeline. Actually, I played no part in the events of that evening at all!
And, it was arrogant and presumptuous to think I played any part in the whole, horrible mess. For nine and one-half months I have lived with the burden of believing that I could have and should have changed things. It was up to me, and in my selfishness, I had blown it.
And it’s not true.
The lessons of a dream. The lessons of my son.
I had a second dream, the next night. I walked in the house and Zack was sitting on the family room floor playing video games with his sisters. I asked him; “What are you doing here?”
And with that same luminescence in his eyes, he turned to me and said “getting that video game in.”
I understand all this. I don’t understand anything at all.