Losing a Hero

My friend Patrick and I were out for dinner in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We were enjoying the Pilgrim’s special, a ridiculously cheap and delicious three-course meal, inside a lively tapas bar. Pat and I were celebrating the completion of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage hike of 160 miles.

Then I checked my phone. My breathing went short and quick all the sudden. I had urgent texts from my dad to call him immediately. That never happens. I called him. His voice was raspy and weak. “Your cousin Will was killed in a car accident.”

Everything went cold, blank, and numb. I couldn’t do any talking so my dad filled the void. “Do you remember how Will used to wakeboard?” He reminisced. “He would just go for it. All the way. Like crazy.” My tears started dripping on the wooden table.

My cousin was gone.

Will, the cousin who, while in high school, built a cabin—a legit, full-sized wooden cabin complete with a balcony to drink Mountain Dew in with his friends and cousins.

Will, the cousin who went to ISU and lived in Ames for four years during my hopelessly awkward pre-teen years. While most college kids were attending keg parties, Will was taking me to Chinese restaurants, ordering sesame chicken, and asking me about my walk with Jesus.

Will, the cousin who made our annual guys cousin Christmas sleepover not only one of the best nights of the entire year but also significantly better than the girls’ separate but unequal (in terms of quantity of fun and frozen pizzas consumed) sleepover.

Will, the one who, despite having no idea how to properly wakeboard, attacked the wake with so much bravado that he jumped higher than anybody.

Will, the one who taught me to jump on a snowboard by saying something like “I don’t know, man, you just kind of, you know, jump. Just go for it.”

The tears streamed down as the memory film continued to roll. I thought about how huge Will’s role in my life was while we overlapped in Ames. I was an awkward, gangly 13-year-old boy who didn’t know who he was. Will was a man’s man who made go-karts from scraps, had enough intramural champion shirts for every day of the week, went out of his way to love on me, and most importantly showed me that life in Jesus wasn’t a dull, lifeless routine but a vibrant and adventurous lifestyle that was exciting, challenging, and abundant. Will was one of my heroes. And now he was gone.

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WIll and I in Colorado after a day of snowboarding

Later that night, I pulled out my journal, put pen to paper, and tried to get some things out of me.

“I miss Will. I hate that I can’t tell him that I love him right now. Death feels so real and permanent and hard. But death, death for those in Christ is only a veil. It’s a passage we walk towards eternity with our Savior. Will is secure in Jesus right now. Because of that, I will choose joy. I will choose joy because JOY called Will home and now Will is experiencing unspeakable joy in the presence of our God.

This sorrow is real, and this is a time for mourning—a life ended so early, a beautiful life that was doing things and going places and bearing fruit. Yes, this sorrow is so real. But joy, yes, joy, overwhelms it. The truth is that Will’s death does not touch God’s unfailing promises, unending faithfulness, or ridiculous love.

One thing I remember about Will was that he had this aura about him, this contagious spirit made up his goofy grin and magnetic personality in equal measure. Will had Joy, that fruit of the Spirit we pick up from contact with Jesus through the Holy Spirit. And now, now that Will is rubbing shoulders with the King in His forever home, that Joy must be more real than ever.”

My dad is a really wise man, somebody who speaks clarity and love and truth into situations. The day after I heard the news, I called him from a restaurant in Barcelona hoping to hear some comforting wisdom. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his words.

“Vince, here’s what I’m finding comfort in right now.” His voice was strained but clear. “Paul writes that ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain.’ And here’s the thing: we either believe those words or we don’t. And if we believe them, then this is going to be OK.”

My cousin Will believed those Divine words, that living was Christ, and that death was gain because it meant going home. His trust in the saving grace of Jesus Christ set him free to spend his days here on Earth doing the things that matter once our days run out—serving relentlessly, living boldly, and loving deeply—all in an attempt to imitate his Savior. Just like my dad said about Will on a wakeboard, “He went for it. Like crazy.” He built stuff like crazy. He helped the people around him like crazy. He loved his wife, his family, and his friends like crazy.

Patrick Kolts, Will’s brother-in-law and best friend, posted an instagram with a caption that says everything that I want to close this post with.

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God is too good. We find strength in his joy and we are so humbled to have known William…This man was a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He loved without discrimination and served as though he was lesser than everyone. His humility was covered by his joy which was found in knowing Jesus. I am so honored to have had him as a close friend and as a brother (in-law), even though it was for a short time. Death is a real thing and we will all have to face it. I pray that you would know the infinite love and forgiveness found in Jesus. “…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9 ESV) Jesus conquered death, and we have no need to fear it if you know Christ as your savior. #nohashtags

 

P.S. To my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.— I’ve never been more proud to be a Nichols. The faith, hope, and joy displayed by all of you as we mourn has been nothing short of miraculous. Our joy is not the shallow kind. It has nothing to do with plastic smiles or surface-level small-talk. It is a weighty joy, a joy with roots that go deep into our Jesus, roots that hold strong and go down even deeper during storms like this one. 

P.P.S. To the rest of you — if you’re interested in reading more about my incredible cousin Will, please read these beautiful posts by my beautiful cousins that make me dab my eyes and wonder how I got so blessed with these people.

The Day I Met Grief 

For My Cousins (And Anyone That Has Ever Loved At All) 

William Mark Nichols — The Dash Between The Dates 

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3 thoughts on “Losing a Hero

  1. Vince- thank you so much for sharing such an incredibly vivid portrait of your amazing cousin. What a powerful and inspiring tribute. God’s blessings to you and your family as you mourn your loss yet celebrate William’s life and claim the promise that death does not have the last word. Thank you again for so movingly sharing what your cousin meant to you and what made him such a remarkable man of God. GREG BERG (a classmate of your mom- I sang and played for your patents’ wedding)

  2. I don’t know you, but I know one of your cousins. I really have felt blessed reading all of these posts about Will. I think it’s a true testament to your faith that every one of you has chosen Joy in Christ over bitterness and resentment. I’m not really good with words, but I just wanted to say that all of your family’s Will-honoring posts has had an impact on at least one person.

  3. Vince,
    I just read this tribute to your cousin, Will. He was an incredible man and I have to say, I think a lot of your friends and family might describe you the same way. How awesome to have such a special man in your life as a mentor, cousin, and a friend! You are truly blessed to be part of a family who finds complete joy and comfort in Jesus and believes what Paul said. ” To live is Christ, to die is gain.” William was blessed to be part of such an amazing, Godly family and he will be in your hearts forever until you see him again one day.

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