I Could Not Lose Him

by Russ Hill on March 27, 2016

I knew it as soon as he sat down in the seat next to me on the plane.

His head was buried deep in his thick, dark-colored hoodie. His earbuds were firmly implanted muting the world around him.

airplane seat

But, what really gave it away were his eyes. I had never seen eyes sunk that deep into someone’s skull.

I knew something was terribly wrong.

What happened in the hours after we landed shook me in a way I had not previously experienced. I discovered he was not only struggling through life. He was dying.

I had never witnessed life seeping out of someone. The will to live, the desire to experience tomorrow, the hope that fuels each of our internal engines; they were all almost completely gone from this young man.

I was terrified.

For years I had been one of this young man’s youth leaders at our church. Through a long sequence of events I now realize were not coincidental he had come to work for our company and was accompanying me on a business trip.

In the first 24 hours of our trip I noticed he did not eat. At a restaurant we stopped in he struggled to sip down one small spoonful of the soup he ordered. As we left that restaurant this young man sat in the passenger seat next to me, hunched over leaning against the car window, his body badly shaking.

I asked him what was wrong. He said he was getting over a sickness. I decided to no longer buy the lies he had steadily sold me over the years. “You’re not sick. You’re body is shutting down, isn’t it,” I asked. “Yes,” he offered with no elaboration. “You can’t live like this,” I said firmly. “I know. It’s not good,” he said.

As we drove to where we stayed that night we uttered few other words as I struggled to determine how hard to push. As I layed in bed that night I felt the fate of this young man’s life had been put in my hands. I could not sleep. I was not his parent. Not even an uncle. Yet, as I considered the unusual circumstances that had brought me to this place at this time with this young man I had the unmistakable impression it was all by design. This moment was no accident. The responsibility was now mine to fulfill the role I had been assigned.

In the hours of that long night I had the distinct impression this 19-year-old young man needed to be removed from society for a while so he could turn his entire attention to battle the addiction that was destroying his life. I decided to use our three hour drive from San Antonio to Houston the next day to try to convince him that the moment had come to quit his job, give up his full-ride scholarship to an honors college, and say goodbye to his family and friends for an extended period of time.

I will never forget that car ride across Texas. Or handing him my cell phone in the company apartment we stayed in so he could talk to the rehab center counselor I had arranged to be on the line. I left him alone in a bedroom of that apartment, closed the door, and stood outside the room and prayed something would change on that call. The call seemed to last forever. I wondered what could be happening. Finally, the door slowly swung open.

I will never forget the tears in that young man’s eyes as he handed me back my phone and surrendered his future.

I knew his humility and willingness to change his life might not last long so I rushed to get him back to Arizona to say goodbye to his friends and family so we could board yet another plane to head to another state where I had arranged for him to enter a facility where I hoped his life would forever change. He said he wanted to go but how long would he be willing? The clock was the enemy.

He surrendered his phone, his bank account, his car keys, his laptop, and the passwords to his email and social media accounts. I backed up his contact list onto my computer and then deleted it from every device he owned. In one keystroke I deleted the records he had of every one he had ever met.

Late that night I sat in my car outside his mother’s home in Arizona. He had gone inside to do two things: say goodbye to his mom for a while and bring me his box of drug paraphernalia. The image of him walking out of that small one-story  home on the corner carrying that box and closing the door after saying goodbye to his mom is engrained in my mind. We drove to a nearby dumpster where he threw the box of bongs.

He slept in the playroom at our home that night. I guarded the door. The next day after saying goodbye to his father, siblings, and grandparents we boarded another plane. We climbed into a rental car and ate lunch a few miles from the rehab facility he had never seen but was now going to be living in for weeks if not months.

As we drove to “The Ranch” he asked me to crank up the stereo and play The Cave from Mumford & Sons. At full blast the words blared through the speakers, “I won’t let you choke on the noose around your neck.” He asked me to keep driving as he played the song again. And again. And again.

He was angry. Angry at the world that had lied to him. The world that ignored his cries for help at a young age. The world that demanded so much from him but gave him so little in return. The world that somehow had discovered the worst in him and exploited it.

He yelled the lyrics of the song as I drove and the music blared. “I’ll find strengthen in pain. I will change my ways. I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”

Eventually he pushed pause on my phone and the music ended. And I pulled into “The Ranch.” He grabbed his suitcase. And we walked inside. After filling out a few forms I was asked to leave. The young man followed me outside the front door. We hugged on the steps outside and said goodbye.

He walked back in, the door closed, and I sobbed.

The drive back to the airport was quiet. And lonely. The airport was virtually empty. The quiet and stillness of a normally busy terminal were a tender mercy in my moment of raw emotion.

I sat alone in a row of seats on the plane ride home worrying about that young man’s future. And about my bold actions of less than a week’s time.

It’s been two years since that plane ride back to Arizona.

The journey for that young man in those two years has been anything but easy. There have been mistakes made but the stretch of sobriety he has created is an amazing accomplishment. All who know him are incredibly proud of what he has and is overcoming and becoming.

So many people played a role in his journey.

Each step I took with that young man’s life that week before he entered “The Ranch” was driven by faith. Faith that I was acting on impressions received from a higher power. Never before had I made such bold, urgent, and life-altering moves based entirely on impressions.

One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that acting on the impressions I receive increases the number of impressions that come. I used to debate in my mind if the impressions were inspired or self-conceived. I now simply act.

I believe God is testing us to see who will act as His hands. To those He has learned to trust He uses more.

I am grateful for the people who have acted on impressions they have received and thus blessed my life immeasurably.

I’m also grateful, that after reading these words, this young man granted me permission to share this with you.

He Is Not Here…

by Russ Hill on March 21, 2014

The tents are up.

The sleeping bags are strewn along the ground.

The smoke from the last few embers is still billowing up from the fire.

The campsite is empty.

I can see it.  The scene sits perfectly undisturbed in my mind.

As I came upon it my heart was racing.  My feet were moving quickly.  My eyes were laser-focused.  I moved with purpose.

To be candid, I was surprised and disappointed when the others I came upon near this makeshift campsite in a huge front yard were spending time hugging rather than searching.

Why were the officers positioned around the massive fleet with flashing lights standing?  Shouldn’t they be running?

Where was the urgency?  The drive?  The hope?  The determination?

One of our boys was missing.

One of our boys.

Then in the distance I could see his father.  His eyes met mine and we both headed toward each other.

His eyes.  I will never forget them as long as I live.  Sometimes you can look in someone’s eyes and see everything they are thinking and feeling.

His were full of tears.  In them I saw heartbreak.  Desperation.  Immeasurable loss.

As we stood and embraced and he sobbed my eyes remained dry.  His resignation was not a feeling I shared.  I told him that I could have hundreds of people from the church we both attend here within minutes to search for his son if he would allow it.

He declined and said he needed to show me the footprints.

Over the next few minutes he walked me along his expansive property and showed me where his boy had made his way through a hole in the fence and up the hill on the adjoining property to a large canal that brings drinking water from the mountains to the desert.  Then, on the banks of the canal he showed me the displaced dirt where he believed his son had sat down and scurried his way into the water.

This father pointed to where he had retrieved the family dog from the water.  And, he told me of his boy’s love for his dog.  How inseparable they were.

He spoke of how he, his wife, and the scouts who had spent the night in his yard had desperately and unsuccessfully searched for his son.

Now, divers from the police department were putting on their scuba gear.

As the father was pulled away by a police officer I walked away to be alone.  I was discouraged but not convinced.  Wasn’t a larger search needed?  What if he hadn’t gone in the water?  I felt the weight of being the person on scene responsible for deciding whether to mobilize thousands of members of my church.  Didn’t this boy deserve it?

I found a spot on the dirt road next to the canal. And prayed.

In an instant and totally contrary to my mindset at the moment I felt urgency give way to peace.  And suddenly a scripture dominated my thinking.

“Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

My phone rang.  My oldest son called from the car my wife was driving.  He wanted to know where our family could join the search.  I found myself telling them to turn around and head home.

“Now, upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came upon the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:

And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?

He is not here, but is risen.”

Luke 24:1-6

This evening I will walk by the casket of one of our boys.

I, along with hundreds of others, will pause for a moment to pay respect to this innocent, energetic, happy, and friendly young man.

I will be thinking about his parents.  Like I have been all week.

Near the site where those tents used to stand I stood quietly watching these parents in the hours immediately after the divers recovered their son’s body.

I watched as a steady stream of moms with children parked their cars and with limited confidence made their way onto this family’s property.  They meekly approached the parents bearing flowers or baked goods to express love and loss.

Without fail these compassionate visitors who came to express support instead found themselves sobbing as they were embraced by the parents.  Those who came to lift were instead the ones being buoyed up.

As I stood there in the moonlight watching this happen I realized why God picked these two people to raise and care for Carvel Scott Jackson Udall.

We promise to honor your memory, CJ.  We promise to work hard to have our lives reflect the lessons you tried to teach us.

We’ll smile more.  We’ll laugh more.  We’ll have more energy.  We’ll work to be a friend to everyone.  We’ll care less about what others think about us.  We’ll try to unite others.  We’ll stand more frequently to declare what we believe.

We’ll try to be more inseparable from those we love.

We’ll explore more.

Learn more about CJ Udall / Donate to his memorial fund

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