July 28, 2003 was a beautiful day in Spofford, New Hampshire. It was my 'day off' for the week from music staff responsibilities so I was heading to Maine with the camp's head of boys, Bryan, to go whale watching for the day. We took off right after breakfast in my newly purchased Saturn Ion and enjoyed an easy drive to the coast with good conversation, laughter and music. Whale watching is one of those things I always enjoy (as long I can get past the 'are we harming the whales by being out in their habitat' question that lurks in the corners of my mind). I actually had never been at this point in my life, so I was really looking forward to this day spent on the ocean in the company of a new friend.
As we were boarding the boat and beginning to locate seats for our adventure, the intercom went off asking Bryan Marvel to please return to the ticketing area for a phone call. I can't even tell you how my heart began to race as we climbed out of the boat. Immediately my mind went to who could be injured, why is camp calling Bryan, etc. Bryan took the call and by the look on his face, which I will never forget, I could tell the news was tragic. I don't even remember how Bryan broke the news to me after he got off the phone but I just remember being in shock. The news the camp called to tell us was that Tyler Berntsen, 18 years old had been killed in a one car collision while doing a camp errand and another camp staffer Peter Johnson, 15 years old, was in the ICU and they weren't sure if he was going to make it. I don't remember simple details like whether or not we got refunded for our whale watching tickets - I remember watching the boat pull out without us - I remember taking a few minutes to catch our breath and then getting back in the car with me driving to get us back to camp as quickly and safely as possible.
I remember mostly silence permeating our drive back to camp. It was the kind of silence two people share when there just are really no words at all to describe the kind of pain and emotion that comes from the news of a sudden, tragic loss of not only a friend but a young-with-so-much-potential life.
I remember praying and praying and praying for God to give Bryan and all of us 'adult leaders' at camp wisdom in how to respond to the younger camp staff in the midst of a great tragedy and tremendous pain and loss. I remember being so very aware of how God could use us to mentor the younger staff through this time of tragedy and I remember feeling the weight of how we would share our faith in God in the midst of tragedy could have a potential lasting impact on the lives of the kids who were going to be looking to us for answers the second our car door opened when we got back to camp.
I remember praying for Tyler's family. Jeremy, his younger brother, and I had shared some good chats and laughs over the summer and I remember thinking about how this single event and day would forever change Jeremy's life. He was now an oldest child and the way he would respond to Tyler's death would have a gigantic impact on his future.
I remember thinking back to one of our recent days off - Bryan, Christina, and me along with the music staff and Tyler, Nicole and Becca had all gone to Kristin and Mark's for the day to hang out in their very cool attic/youth room. I remember thinking Tyler was easy to be around and hang out with and I also remember him looking forward to going to Wheaton in the fall to play ball. I also recalled him making some great hits during the staff ball games and just thinking about how impossible it seemed that he was gone. He was so fit and strong and athletic and I just couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that he had died earlier in the day.
I still think back about the car ride back to camp and I think about how Bryan and I both had space to process and pray away from the emotion and pain at camp. Camp was very much at 'ground zero' hearing the news and in many ways, I think God used those hours in the car to get us ready for the next few days and weeks of ministering to the camp staff. It's amazing how God can provide those moments to ground us in the midst of a crisis.
What I remember most about arriving back at camp were lots of tears and hugs being exchanged between staffers and a prayer service for Peter's healing and Tyler's family and friends. I remember all of the families attending camp as our guests that week pitching in with dishes, serving meals, helping our staff take a 'break' to be able to grieve and process together. The body of Christ came together in amazing ways that week to serve one another. I remember the night of the 29th we went to the Marvels to hang out as a staff and it was a good time of laughter and tears and sharing and processing away from camp. I remember singing "Comforter" with Meghan at Tyler's memorial service that week. I remember seeing Tyler's family arrive at camp and aching for what they were experiencing.
There are so many memories from summer 2003 ... so many ways God showed up to be "the healer of our hearts" (one of our songs from staff choir that summer). God was very present in so many ways and I'm thankful for the memories of how faithful God was to each one of us during a really tragic time. Those memories are some of the ones I'm reminded of when I need to 'recall his works and wonders' and ground myself in God's goodness. The summer of 2003 was an amazing time of spiritual growth for me on multiple levels. It was a time of learning new truth and being reminded of the truth I knew about God through daily sermons and time in God's word thanks to daily chapel services. It was a time of seeking God's will for my life and my relationships. It was a time of learning how much I felt called to mentor 'younger than me' people in their faith walk and to help students be okay with asking tough questions about their faith in God. It was a time of unplugging from cell phones, email, computers, technology and simplifying life. It was a time of making brand new friendships. It was a time of putting into practice the idea of ascribing worth to God in the midst of tragedy and pain because He alone is worthy.
Tyler has not been forgotten. I am thankful my memories and lessons I learned during his final summer on earth will hopefully remain with me until I see him again in heaven.