I was catching up on an old friendship; we both were as we walked and talked. It started in 1993 on a late September afternoon when Mike and I arrived in Cacyce, South Carolina for the first time. We were delivered to the home of Rick and Vicki Stilwell, who would host us for the weekend and impact the entirety of our lives thereafter. The oak tree at the back corner of their house was glowing yellow in all its Autumn glory and cast a surreal gold through their window, into their living room, and over four lives. It baptized a friendship golden that has lasted 19 years. A friendship that was injureded and forever altered in 2004, and then again last Friday.
Rick was on his way to work on an ordinary day when God called him home. His brother Jeff called Mike with the news. Shattered in a million pieces, my body raced to Vicki's side, to her children, her mother, Rick's parents, his brother. But my mind went back to 2004, back to when none of us knew we'd only have eight more years.
Being with Vicki last Friday afternoon, I knew 2004 didn't matter. Then Mike preached a very private and intimate graveside funeral for a friend who stuck closer than a brother, for iron that sharpened iron. And at Rick's graveside, next to the excruciating pile of freshly dug earth, Vicki and I embraced. She whispered in my ear, "Thank you for today. For this weekend. For 20 years," and, in those words, we buried 2004. If we hadn't already.
But this week I've needed to go back and reset what was broken so long ago, like a bone that didn't heal properly. I needed to rebreak our friendship, and let it heal all over again. I went back to the wound, knowing grace can still be enough. I did it through Rick's blog, where I found this, Rick's own post about walking and talking. He wrote it about a month after the breech in our friendship. He would have loved that his words are healing me now.
Walking & Praying
by Rick Stilwell, September 24, 2004
From one of Rick's old blogs
I went for a walk last night, around 9:30pm. My wife was on the phone, catching up with college friends who'd just moved back to the area. The kids were in bed, the chores mostly done, and frankly I had no excuse to not go walk. I need to exercise, make activity more a part of my life. So I went for a walk. Not the first of an extended exrecise regimen, not starting a new thing that will change my life - just a walk. I can talk about "going for *my* walk if it stays a habit for a few weeks. For now, it's just *a* walk. And I'm planning on taking another one tonight.
As I walked, I noticed things. The neighborhood was quiet, except for the slight breeze in the trees and an occasional dog in the distance. It was late enough that I didn't pass anyone else walking, late enough that all the lights were already out in some homes, a dull blue TV glow visible in the draperies of others. It was dark in the spots too far away to be illuminated by the streetlights, except for the just over half-moon that did a decent job reflecting light to see for the next stride. It was actually a very nice night, and while I didn't walk that far - only about a mile or so roundtrip - I did appreciate the layout of our subdivision, the peace & quiet, the calm after the storms.
As I walked, I prayed. I talked with God out loud, being alone and in the seclusion of the darkness and the rustling breeze. I thanked God that He saw fit, as un-understandable as it is for me, to make us need each other, to build into us a need for community and compassion and companionship with Himself and with each other here in this life. I thanked Him for friends & family, for people He's placed in my life and who I've grown accustomed to in community and real heart-to-heart fellowship. I forgave people, people I've loved and who've loved me and who've hurt me while loving me. I asked for forgiveness for being a putz, for taking things so far, for hurting those I love, for holding onto hurt more than grace, for asking too much and not giving in return. I asked forgiveness for not forgiving myself, for not walking in God's mercy & grace, for relying more on my own understanding and pseudo-intelliegence than on the Almighty and His everlasting brilliance. I asked for strength to move on, to be strong and courageous, to choose life & blessing in the course of human events. I asked for restoration of relationships, reconciliation on so many fronts that are out of whack right now. And I thanked God for the walk, for the steady pace and next step that always seemed to come.
I was sweaty and hot when I got home - from the walk, and maybe from the conversation.
Our friendship continued after 2004, but it was different. The balm that has soothed all these years since is that, although our friendship changed, the love at its foundation never did.
1 Corinthians 13:8 says love never fails. It was true: our love remained. The years we walked together, and the years we didn't.
Vicki is about to start a new mile in another long, slow marathon. This time, I don't want to leave her in the ninth mile.
A friend loves at all times; And a brother is born for adversity.
~ ~ ~
While so many are writing beautiful tributes to Rick's life, what's on my mind right now—selfishly—is our friendship, a rare and exquisite treasure. Like Rick did years ago, I, too, am asking "for strength to move on, to be strong and courageous, to choose life and blessing in the course of human events."