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 

Break

In college, I think you learn more during the breaks. There’s something about stepping away from your life. Stepping back from everyday life, you realize some things that you can’t see up close. This thanksgiving break has been a full 18-hour credit load of blessings.

7 Reasons for thanksgiving realized over break:

1. Family: I don’t think you fully appreciate your family until you go to school. I could write a whole post on this alone and probably will sometime. My family, nuclear, extended, etc., knows me, loves me, and never lets me question those two things.

2. Old friends: It’s an amazing thing to be able to pick up friendships right where they left off. I’m blessed to have so many relationships like that to come home to.

3. Pillow Talk: There’s nothing like your own bed, but I sure missed pillow talk with my roomie. Those last five minutes before sleep are when conversational greatness occurs.

4. Homes: It happened a couple days ago. Someone asked me when I was driving back to Waco. “I’m driving back home on Sunday.” Wait a second…did I just call Waco home? Yeah, I did. And it’s not like Ames isn’t. It dawned on me I’ve two places where I’m in community, two places where I’m loved, two places I’m on mission, both of them with just the right mix of comforts and challenges. I’ve got two homes, and they’re beautiful different and alike in all the right ways.

5. He put a ring on it: Wednesday, my brother got down on one knee and asked my soon-to-be sister, “Emily Cole, would you go with me?” Her response, “por supuesto,” Spanish for “of course.” Despite their unconventional proposal verbiage, I can assure you that they are very much engaged and ready to live life together, dedicated to serving each other, their God, and the people around them. To symbolize this, after he asked, Miles washed Emily’s feet right there on the dirt path, He used his Nalgene water bottle and a washcloth. What a stud. I couldn’t be more excited about these two lovebirds and to help his fiancé out, I wrote her a couple tips for the Nichols( my mom’s maiden name) annual thanksgiving gathering. Which brings me to another realization

6. Thanksgiving with the Nichols: This one I’ve known for a while, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, has more fun on Thanksgiving than the Nichols family. To give you an idea of the experience, here’s a couple pieces of advice I offered Emily.

  1. Practice your farmer talk with Uncle Craig and Randy. Throw around words like yield, bushel, and acreage, ask them about their combine, and tell them you’ve been praying for rain
  2. Ask Cousin Sam or James about their no-huddle offense football coaching schemes. Sit back and relax and enjoy their 30 minute answer.
  3. Ask cousin Rich if he has any pictures of cows on his I-phone. He will. Proceed to compliment their bone structure and deep, rounded flank.

7. The gospel:  but I’d be leaving out the greatest reason for thanksgiving not just on the Holiday designated by President Lincoln(great movie by the way) but every single day. Friday, I got up early, and by early I mean 9:00, and went on a run. The shorts and t-shirt was a bad call, I realized that when I ran over a bridge and saw a thin film of ice on the creek. The good call was the Tim Keller sermon I listened to as I ran. He preached about money( yeah I know, preachers are always preaching about money) but this one was different. He talked about our treasure, where our treasure is, our heart will be and our lives will be. And then he related that to Jesus. Jesus died for us. Keller says people don’t just die for anything. They die for what they treasure. See what he’s getting at? We are Jesus’ treasure. Realizing and dwelling in that truth makes everyday a holiday.