The blue lights illuminating the bridge cast a ghostly light over the river flowing slowly through downtown Jacksonville. My half-brother, Zach, forges ahead while I walk at a more leisurely pace. I love walk around downtown at night. All the different bars and restaurants have all their festive lights on throughout the year, twinkling against the black sky.
Today, however, I don’t feel as inspired as usual. My heart beats heavily against my chest, and I don’t know exactly how long I can put up the front that I’m okay.
Zach stops in the middle of the bridge, where there’s a little place you can walk out, and leans on the railing. I join him, and we stand in silence. The wind blowing on my face feels nice. It’s almost cool, but not quite.
“Can you see yourself working in one of those buildings?” he asks me, pointing toward the skyscrapers on the opposite shore.
“I’d hate it,” I say right away. “I couldn’t live all closed up like that.”
“I don’t know. Having an office on the top floor would probably be pretty sweet. Almost like you were flying all the time.”
“Yeah, but you’re not going anywhere,” I shoot back.
My thoughts drift, and I picture myself in an office, working all hours of the day, going home to an empty apartment, and falling into bed, only to get enough sleep to go back to work the next day. The thought is stifling.
What do I want to do? I have no idea. I don’t really care that much either. The only two people who ever cared about me died suddenly last month. My grandparents were the reason I planned on going to college and making a life for myself. They were going to pay for everything, and, for a short time, I thought I might have a chance to make a life for myself. But when they died, all their money was split between my aunts, uncle, and my mom, who needed it to pay off some of her debt. I wasn’t getting any of the money. I’m not going to college this year. Maybe never. Maybe working in an office like that won’t even be an option for me, and I’ll forever be stuck in the nannying industry for the rest of my life. I don’t even like kids that much.
But it wasn’t really about the money. I lost my grandparents, the only decent people I’ve ever had in life, other than Zach. Grandma practically raised me while my mom worked long hours and didn’t get back home until early in the morning. I remember the special dinosaur oatmeal she always made for me in the morning before school and the nightly prayer my granddad said over me whenever I slept at their house. I miss them horribly. My heart throbs every time I think of them.
With these gloomy thoughts, I look into the water. It flows smoothly, looking strangely black except for where the light shines on it. I wonder what it would feel like to jump and fall and fall, finally hitting the cold water, then sinking deeper and deeper…
“What are you thinking about, April?” Zach nudges me, and I’m startled back into reality.
“Water,” I say slowly. “and suffering. And death.”
Zach gives me a strange look, and I continue. “I thought God was good. Why does he let us suffer? Why can’t life be good for once? Or at least easier to handle.”
I think back to all the Sundays I sat in church with my grandparents and listened to the preacher speak. I still went with them every Sunday even when I was older, because I loved learning about God. He was so good, so merciful, so caring.
Zach sighs and leans back on the railing. “Life sucks; I think we can both agree on that. No one will say it’s easy. But you have to change your perspective to actually thrive in life.”
I really don’t want a lecture right now. I turn back toward the water. “I don’t see how perspective changes anything.”
“I’ve gotten to the point where I appreciate pain and suffering,” Zach says.
I stare at him. “You’re a masochist?”
He laughs. “Not exactly.”
He messes up my hair, and I smack his hand away. “Why would you enjoy pain?”
“You aren’t the only one who’s suffered, okay? They were my grandparents too. I wasn’t as close to them as you were, but I loved them too.”
There’s pain in his face, and I feel bad for not thinking that he might be hurting, too.
“Last summer I remember thinking this after I had to break up with Chelsea. I was really torn up about it, and I’d go outside and pray. I’d walk for hours, thinking through my life and why God did what he did. And you know what I realized?”
“God taught me more through that situation than I’d learned in the past few years. You don’t really think about growing or improving yourself while everything is great. Suffering teaches you so much. You really learn about what’s the most important to you and who you are inside. Once all the meaningless stuff is stripped away, you’re left with who you are, the real person. Once you know that, you can start reevaluating your life and becoming more like the person you are meant to be.”
I shake my head. “How do I know who I was meant to be?”
“God will show you that. If you grow closer to Him through your pain, He will become greater in your life.”
“What if I don’t want Him to be greater?” I ask.
Zach looks concerned. “That’s on you, bro. God does His part of getting your attention. Whatever you respond is your decision.”
“Yeah. It’s your choice how you react to what happens in your life. You can either be the victim and cry about why things happen to you, or you can look at it and ask what you can do to grow or change from the experience. I’m not trying to be harsh, but a lot of your circumstances depend on your attitude and how you decide to respond.”
“Interesting.” I lean against the railing and let the city lights blur in my vision. I don’t like what Zach is saying. It’s too simple, too hard, and clearly unattainable. I prefer to blame someone and wallow in self-pity.
“You okay?” Zach asks gently.
“No, I’m not okay!” I can’t keep it together anymore. “I blame God for taking them away from me. How is killing them a good way to get my attention? I went to church with them all the time. I believed in God. I didn’t need him to do this.”
“Okay, before you think all of this is for you, I’m sure God had other reasons for their passing. But in your life, I think he’s using their death to stop you in everything you’ve been doing and wake you up to what’s truly important in your life.”
“I don’t know anymore. I have no control of my life anymore. I feel like I’m just drifting around, waiting for a break.”
The wind blows through Zach’s curly hair, and he scratches his jaw. “Maybe you rely too much on having control of your own life instead of trusting God. He doesn’t like it when we try to take charge. Remember that verse in Proverbs? Something about trusting God with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding.”
“But I have no clue what he wants from me!” I yell. “How am I supposed to trust Him when I don’t even know what he wants?”
“That’s what trust it, April,” Zach says softly. “If you knew exactly what was going to happen, it wouldn’t be trust anymore.”
I breathe, trying to think of something to retort, but nothing comes to mind. I hate arguing with Zach; he’s so much smarter than me and can always come up with better arguments. I sigh. “It’s so stupid.”
“Trust. Why can’t he just tell me? Why do I have to follow blindly?”
Zach smiles, but I can tell he’s not happy. “That’s what God asks from us. We’re not just meant to follow him when everything’s good. He asks for total commitment, even when things get tough. Sure, it’s hard, but you need to decide if following God is worth it to you or not. You can’t just do it halfheartedly. You’re either in or you’re out.”
My stomach clenches at his words. I look back out over the black water, watching the reflection of the lights sparkle on the surface. “How are you so certain?”
“God’s never left me yet, even when everyone else has. Believe me, life is so much better with Him. Not to mention everything He’s done for me. He’s so good to us, April. When I think about it logically, all I can do is obey what He says, because I know He knows what the best is for me. I don’t even know what’s best for me. So if I have to follow Him blindly, I’ll do it. I haven’t regretted it yet.”
As we walked slowly back to our car, I think about Zach’s words. He is so sure, so secure. Why can’t I be that way? I’m scared. I don’t want to trust anyone anymore, because I’ve been hurt too badly. I want to shut everyone out and take control of my life. But what can I do? I don’t know what I’m doing here. What my future will be like. I need someone to help me through that, someone who’s smarter and bigger than I am, someone who can take care of me. Can God do that? Have I been blaming the wrong person this whole time?