I’ve always compared life and death to a game of baseball. When I became old enough to understand that my grandparents wouldn’t be around forever, I imagined them standing in the batter’s box of life. Meanwhile, I pictured my parents in the on deck circle, while my sister and I sat safely in the dugout where we would remain for many years, assuming life followed the natural order of life and death.
Once my grandparents were gone and my parents stepped up to the plate, my sister and I took our spots in the on deck circle. Less than a decade later my parents made their final outs, and I, the older of two siblings, took my spot in the batter’s box. If things went according to plan, I would be next in line.
After losing parents, in-laws, and loved ones over the years, I have heard more than my fair share of ‘sorry for your loss.’ Those four words–intended to provide comfort, always pained me in ways that I can’t possibly describe. The sting was similar to hearing ‘good game’ from the opposing team after a devastating loss; only much, much worse. Since I was the one now in the batter’s box, I took comfort in knowing I would never hear them again.
However, just like in baseball, life doesn’t always throw you the pitch you expect. Sometimes life will throw you an unexpected curveball, as it did on March 27, 2020. It was the day I was taken out of the game and replaced with a pinch hitter; our son Josh.
Josh was the younger of our two sons. While our older son Justin took a keen interest in music and the cinema, Josh found his true calling in sports. As an infant his first pair of shoes were athletic. Sports always came so naturally to him. He played on elite soccer and basketball teams, and later in high school competed on the basketball, track, and cross country teams. He loved his Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves, but most of all he loved our Florida Gators. He was a true sports fan in every way.
As I said, Josh was a natural. He scored a goal in his first soccer game at the age of four; he hit a home run in his first baseball game two years later; at seven he scored 30 points in his first basketball game; and a year later ran his first Peachtree Road Race. Josh played on an undefeated league champion basketball team when he was 10; I remember it well because I was his coach.
What set Josh apart was that he wanted his teammates to shine. In basketball he was more interested in making assists than he was in scoring points; he never topped those 30 points in that first game. He scored five goals in the only soccer game my parents ever saw him play and apologized after the game because the rest of his teammates only scored two; from that day on he was more interested in passing to his teammates than he was in scoring a goal himself. His favorite races were relays because the entire team could be in the spotlight following a good competition. In sports—and in life, he was generous to a fault.
Josh loved pushing his body to the limit. He completed his first marathon at the age of nine. I should know; he furiously peddled his tiny three-speed bicycle right next to me for all 26.2 miles on a cool, crisp morning in Birmingham, Alabama. Twenty-two years later Josh finished his first marathon on foot; I was by his side every step of the way. When Josh was very young he gave me the ultimate compliment when he ran with a good friend of mine and confided in him that he wanted to grow up to be just like his dad.
Throughout his childhood and most of his adolescence, Josh got everything he could out of life: the life every young boy should have the chance to live.
Then a nasty curveball was thrown in Josh’s direction. Although he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, he still swung his bat. The curveball was opiates, and they ultimately haunted him the rest of his adult life. They damaged Josh’s health, jobs, and relationships with several wonderful young ladies. They tormented him and destroyed his peace of mind. Josh’s transformation from All-American to addict was indescribably painful; not only for him, but also for everyone that knew and loved him.
Josh worked hard to overcome his addiction; so very, very hard. Following a six-month treatment program several years ago at the Bridges of Hope Recovery Center in Chauncey, Georgia Josh worked long hours at several grueling jobs, determined on getting his life in order. Last summer, fearing he was in for a relapse if he didn’t take immediate action, he returned to Chauncey—this time for eight months–and completed his second round of treatment working the program’s 12 steps the right way and accepting Christ as his savior. During his stay he decided to pursue a career in counseling to help others struggling with addiction. Josh wanted to use his life experiences to help others. Josh was going to spend some time with us before starting his new job, and we were looking forward to celebrating his accomplishments with him before he started his new job at a recovery center in Kennesaw.
Josh spent his first week home getting everything in order: insurance, tag, and a new battery for his 2002 Toyota Camry; a deposit for his living quarters in Kennesaw; a fact finding trip to Kennesaw State University to plan for enrolling in the Masters program in counseling for the fall of 2021; and working out the details of his new job. Things appeared to be looking up.
The last day before Josh started his new job he and I worked together on a project I started last year: remodeling Justin’s house. It felt like old times, working side by side with my ambitious son towards a common goal. Many years ago that common goal was the finish line at the end of a footrace, or putting more points on the scoreboard than the other team; today it was making Justin’s house the best it could be. It was quite possibly the best day we spent together in his entire adult life, and felt like the beginning of something new, wonderful, and long overdue.
The following morning as I watched Josh drive off for his first day of work at the recovery center, I couldn’t possibly have been more proud of him. Josh was about to embark on his journey to ‘leave an awesome legacy,’ a note he made in a journal his mother would discover in his room a couple of days later. That night, after 12 hours on the job and while driving back to our home in Senoia, life had one more curveball for Josh: the thing that haunted him his entire adult life reared its ugly head one last time.
We lost our son the next morning, the victim of an apparent overdose.
For the first 10 or 15 minutes after realizing Josh was gone, the only thing I felt was numb; paralyzed, perhaps. How could this be? The instant replay going through my mind showed that Josh was safe with us now; safe at home. His life was headed in the right direction. How could he possibly be called out?
I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t speak and, inexplicably, I couldn’t cry.
That is, until the first of many uniformed personnel that made an appearance in our home that morning approached me and said ‘sorry for your loss.’ It was that exact moment I completely fell apart.
‘Sorry for your loss.’ I was not supposed to hear those four words ever again. The next time those four words should have been spoken is when those words were said about me, not to me. I was the one in the batter’s box. I was supposed to be next. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
But that’s how it was. It was so terribly unfair, and it hurt. It hurt badly. Josh was supposed to have more 50 years to enjoy life, pursue his goals, and marry the girl of his dreams: to leave the awesome legacy he imagined. God only knows what he was capable of accomplishing in the next five decades; regrettably none of us will ever know.
I regret the many people that will never experience Josh’s generosity, sense of humor, and the kind and gentle soul that his family and friends knew him for. If you didn’t know Josh you missed out, and I’m sorry for your loss.
I’m sorry for our loss.
A parent should never have to lose a child. It is the most painful feeling on earth, and it’s difficult making any sense of it. Maybe it was fate that Josh accepted Him as his savior before calling him home; maybe that’s all He was waiting on. Maybe this was God’s way of giving Josh the peace he so desperately wanted for nearly 20 years. Maybe this was God’s way of bringing his suffering to a merciful end. Maybe this was simply God’s way of saying he needed Josh by His side.
While Josh’s commitment to Christ wasn’t able to save his life, it saved his soul.
The pastor of our church told Cindy and I that we can take comfort in knowing exactly where Josh is–in the hands of Christ—and that one day we’ll all be together once again.
Cindy and I believe that although the world could have benefitted by having Josh as a counselor for those facing problems with addiction, God needed him even more. Now the pursuit of Josh’s awesome legacy to help others struggling with addiction falls on our shoulders.
Regardless of any other curveballs life throws our way, it is now our dream to make his dream come true.
“Empathy for others is something I have always felt and the ability to help others struggling with the same demons that I have is something I am passionate about.“
– From Josh’s application for admission to Kennesaw State University’s Collegiate Recovery Program
Bridges of Hope is in the process of building a recreation area for residents that will include basketball and volleyball courts as well as a special dedication to Josh.
In honor of Josh’s memory, please consider a donation to:
Bridges of Hope, 74 C L Tucker Drive, Chauncey, Georgia 31011