Time is something that is always changing, yet it always moves at a constant pace. My story includes such a small period of time. In one day, there are twenty-four hours, and somewhere in those few hours of January 15th, 2011, my life changed in the blink of an eye. Within seconds, someone I love stopped breathing. It changed everything. But, my story begins a few hours before that.
Wake up. I always have to tell myself to wake up. I wake up and it is a beautiful Saturday. I walk into the living room of my house, where the sun is shining bright through all the windows and I feel like it is going to be a good day. I usually wake up on the weekend home alone, but this time I walk around until I find my dad and my little brother, Phillip.
Dad: “Phillip and I are going to a Valdosta State basketball game later today, if you would like to come.”
I immediately think of my best friend James. James is a part of my family. He got along with my dad and brother better than I did. The basketball game with them would be a lot easier to endure if James went along. He is the older brother I never had.
I pick up my phone and call James, to invite him to join us. He doesn’t answer. James always answers. His phone goes straight to voicemail. I remember a time in the past that I called James with a stupid boy dilemma. James was in the middle of football camp, but he called a timeout. He picked up the phone for me then. I am always James’ first priority, so something seems wrong. I call Drew, James’ best friend, and his phone goes straight to voicemail as well. Something definitely seems wrong. I try to convince myself that I’m overthinking. I always overthink and I always worry too much, so this could be nothing. James is just busy. He’ll call me back later.
An hour or two pass by without response from either James or Drew. As I am cleaning up my room trying to keep my mind busy, I receive a text message from my friend Emily.
Emily: “What’s wrong with James?”
Emmaline (me): “What are you talking about?”
Emily: “I see on Facebook that many people are writing on James’ wall, saying that they are praying for him. Why are people praying for him? What happened?”
Little did she know that I was asking myself the same questions. What in the world is going on!?
Emmaline (me): “Umm, I’m not sure. He hasn’t been answering my calls. I’ll try to find out.”
James was a huge part of the church community. He was the first person that brought me to the church I’ve been attending for the past three years. He was a mentor to me; if it weren’t for James I would not have found the faith that has saved me. After those texts messages, I decided to call someone from the church to see if they knew what was going on with him. Mackenzie answered my call.
Mackenzie: “James and Drew went out duck hunting this morning at a place called Ocean Pond, and James is missing. Drew is fine, but he doesn’t know where James is.”
My heart immediately dropped to my chest. The gut feeling I had been experiencing all day that something was wrong was rapidly increasing, and I suddenly couldn’t keep still.
My thought processes jumped to visualize duck hunting. I thought, when you go duck hunting, it is a little different from hunting ground animals like deer. When you hunt ducks, you spend the entire time on a boat. You don’t go missing on a small boat. James wasn’t playing hide-and-seek. James being missing meant that he was lost somewhere in the water. The odds weren’t looking very good. Maybe I’m worrying too much, but I’m being rational. Right? I put my phone down and slowly slid out of my chair onto the floor. I lay on the floor for hours, crying. My brother came in from outside and just stared at me. My chest was on fire; I have never felt so much pain in my life. The amount of emotional pain transformed to a physical pain that I felt in the pit of my stomach. The sun that made me happy when I first woke up now began to burn my eyes. I felt like I was sinking, but in reality the only person sinking was my best friend, drowning in icy water.
When I could finally stop crying enough to talk, I call my mom. My mom was not home this weekend; she was at the beach with some of her good friends from college. She did not take the news as heavily as I did.
Mom: “He’s just sitting somewhere in the marsh where the water is really shallow. Someone will find him. He’ll be fine, I know he will.”
I begin to feel somewhat better. I tell myself that this does not have to be a death sentence. James could be fine. I decide to call Mackenzie from church again and invite her and her mom to my house to keep me company while we wait for news.
Hours and hours pass by, yet still no news comes. The church and community decides to hold a prayer session at a local park for all the people worried about James. Mackenzie, her mom and I drive out to the park. Hundreds of people were at the park. All of them were there for James. All of us stood in a circle, teary-eyed, and prayed. I have never seen my community come together like that. Rival schools and teammates, people old, young, and teenage. Teachers, preachers, friends, athletes, fathers, mothers, so many people were at the park for James.
We went around in the circle and each person told their story of how much James meant to them. James was a brother to many. He was a mentor, a friend, a shoulder to cry on, a pal to laugh with. James was the one person that convinced a girl to graduate from high school. James was the friendly face that ate lunch with a boy that was alone and contemplating suicide. I had no idea that James meant so much to people other than me.
All it took was seconds, maybe minutes for James to drown. The water was below freezing. The gear that he was wearing was built to weigh him down in order to be able to wade in shallow waters. In deeper waters, he would surely and quickly sink. He drowned quickly, and within seconds he stopped breathing. However, it took search and rescue a month to recover his body. Days of worry and prayer turned into weeks. I had to return to school and try to go on with my life, as if I didn’t feel like it was all falling apart.
Finally, one crisp February morning, a search dog found my James’ body.
I was in my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, and my phone rang from a number of different people. I went to the bathroom to return a call and found out that someone found my best friend’s dead body. I knew it wasn’t smart to hold on to any kind of hope that he was alive, but knowing he was actually dead made the situation suddenly very real. I tried to return to class, but I ended up sitting right beside the door, crying harder than ever. I had to go out to Ocean Pond, where I spent most of my time for the past month watching divers search for him. I had to go out there and see it.
By the time I arrived at the site, there was nothing left to see. James’ body had been recovered and I would never see him again. All that was left was a teary funeral, and abrupt good-byes that I wasn’t ready to give. To this day I don’t know how to say good-bye to James. I visit his grave, and I don’t know how to leave the picture of his face.
Losing someone you so deeply love so quickly is probably one of the most excruciating human experiences. I am so thankful that James left behind such a beautiful story, and such a powerful legacy. The first day I met James, he told me, “Hey girl. You know, I love you. I really do. I would take a bullet for you.” When someone says those kinds of things to you without even knowing you for twenty-four hours, it feels strange. But, James knew time meant everything. He knew that all it takes is minutes, seconds, to change someone’s life forever.
The thing that is so astonishing about James’ story, is that he understood how quickly everything can change. When James was alive, a fellow student of his died in a motorcycle crash. James was devastated that he had not reached out to this boy before it was too late. That night, in a note on Facebook entitled “The Clock is Ticking,” James wrote a short paragraph that showed the depth of his understanding of life. He wrote, “Take time to love someone. Today, Tomorrow, For the rest of your life. Because when that unexpected day comes that they pass on, you'll be left wondering what you could've done better. How you could have made them feel more welcome, and show that you do care for them. Don't wait until it's too late like I did. Show the love that Jesus has for you to everyone you see. Let your heart break for what breaks His. Christ is enough. Let Him show you life. You never know who He may touch through you. It is so sad that it takes a tragedy like this to comprehend how our days are numbered. Only He knows. Keep your faith in Him. He will bless you beyond belief. Our job is right now. This very second. So often, God gives me a little nudge towards someone.. and I put it off until the next day.. and then the next and then the next. Stop stalling. God put us on this earth for HIS glory. Not ours.. and so many times, the things I do always point back to me and my stupid self righteousness. So do something with me. Everyone. If this just touches one person, I will have done my job. Don't stall. Judgement is a heart beat away.”