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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Boxes

All my stuff is in boxes in the SUV. I’m not sure what’s going on in my heart right now. The goodbyes are wearing on me. You smile and say “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later,” but you can never know that. No see you later is ever guaranteed. I’m parting ways with so many people I’ve been blessed by with hopes that they’ll remain a big part of my life, but I can’t know that. As bad as I hope and as hard as I’ll try to keep in touch with the friends I love, eighteen years is a long enough time for someone to learn that people change.

Last night my friends and I had one last little get-together. It started with a formal dinner, which featured copious amounts of delicious food and suit jackets and sweater vests purchased at local thrift stores. After dinner, all eleven of us piled into a conversion van and hit up Orange Leaf for the sole purpose of being seen in our ridiculous outfits. We followed this adventure with a dance party. The dance party was a blast, but I think it started hitting everyone then. You could see it on faces. We realized that this was it. It was almost over. We might all be back together, but it’d be as changed people, people separated by time.

Time is a weird thing. There are periods in my life when everything is moving slow. It’s the week after spring break when you realize how much time there is left until school gets out, or it’s the dog days of summer when you have what seems like an eternity to lay around at the pool with your friends. And then there’s right now. Where it’s all moving way too fast. Where I’m saying goodbyes I don’t feel ready for. Where I’m putting stuff in boxes and taking stuff off the walls that I don’t want to be moving. When time is moving fast, you start looking at seconds and minutes and hours differently.

So what do I do with these feelings? These feelings of grief and excitement and anxiousness that I have in my gut going into move-in day of my freshman year of college. The answer is joy. I’ve been called to Baylor, away from Ames, away from parents and siblings and friends, away from my Church, the park I used to go swing in, and the school I used to go to, away from the field I used to play on and the dog I used to play with and the bed I used to sleep in. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. But joy is more powerful.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy     Psalms 63:5-7 

One of my friends tonight brought out the “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” and everyone rolled their eyes. After a second though, another friend said there’s actually a lot of good stuff in that quote. There is. The truth is that I’ve been so blessed, blessed to be living in this beautiful city in one of the most privileged places on the most privileged planet in the entire cosmos, blessed to have an incredibly loving family to miss, blessed to have close friends to miss, blessed to have parents and siblings and friends and teachers and mentors much wiser than me to talk to when I need guidance, blessed to be going off to a college that will challenge and strengthen me and form me into the man God wants me to be while having a whole lot of fun, and blessed to serve a big, loving God.

I remember You upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings, I will sing for joy.

P.S. Sorry about the run-on sentences.

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