Two days after Christmas, when most Wilkin’s folks were wishing that they hadn’t eaten quite so much holiday ham and were leafing through the Yellow Pages searching for good rates at local health clubs or scanning calendars to mark the days of the week when they would begin walking or perhaps jogging, but at the very least walking, Debbie Webster, Leslie Burbee, and Marilyn Winslow, the mother of Jimmy, purchased sweet smelling carnations to lay atop the grave of Russell Hicks.
They arrived at the cemetery early in the day, when the sun’s easterly rays reflected brightly off the polished gravestones, giving an aura of life eternal to the place of death. Russell’s burial plot was at the southern end of the cemetery, nestled against a whitewashed, cinderblock wall beyond which children played in the schoolyard of Vincent-Bynum Elementary.
Leslie parked her AMC Gremlin near the entrance of the memorial park, all of them preferring a quiet, meditative walk to the resting place of the most exceptional, unconventional person they had ever known.
“Why would he kill himself?” Debbie said, dabbing her eyes with a crumpled Kleenex as they walked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
No one else spoke, each puzzling over the dubious circumstances surrounding Russell’s demise. The police determined the cause of death to be suicide, committed by a troubled youth with self-destructive urges. Many of Russell’s own friends testified to his preoccupation with dying, forcing Dr. Pilot to revise his original assessment of the youth and concur with the police findings. Deep in his heart though, he thought Russell to be the innocent victim of some nefarious plot. Unfortunately no one shared his point of view, with most people content simply to forget the whole, grievous affair.
“Who’s that?” Leslie asked, pointing at a young man standing to the right of Russell’s gravesite.
“I don’t know,” Debbie answered. “I’ve never seen him before.”
As the women approached the unfamiliar visitor, they were struck with an inscrutable apprehensiveness. Standing opposite of the young man, studying him carefully, the three women sensed an other-worldliness about him. He was dressed in a handsomely tailored, charcoal suit with a matching overcoat that accentuated the effulgent brilliance of his azure eyes and long, flaxen hair. His face was flawless, ageless, preternatural. The more they examined his celestial countenance, the less able they were to describe him. It was as if they were gazing upon beauty itself.
“Don’t be amazed or terrified,” he said, his voice ambrosial, as if the words themselves carried a nectarous fragrance. “You are looking for Russell Hicks, who was murdered. He’s not here. He is in Paradise. Don’t spend any more time weeping here at the place where they laid him. Instead, go tell Peter and the others what you have seen this morning.”
“What have we seen here, this morning?” Leslie asked, reflecting the question in all their minds.
The man smiled, his dazzling teeth bursting forth like a small, radiant sunrise. “See the inscription on Russell’s headstone?”
“Russell Hicks: He lived the life,” Leslie read aloud.
“Yes. He followed his Lord even unto death. For any death to have value, it must result in new life. And, there can be no new life without death. This is the eternal struggle. So as you are going out into Wilkins, and North Carolina, and the United States, and to the ends of the earth, show people the way to live transformed lives. Remember though, that like Russell, living the life requires a willingness to die. Now Go.”
The women hurried out of the memorial park trembling and bewildered. They called Russell’s closest friends, all of whom gathered that night in Marilyn Winslow’s rec room. Each woman related the events as they had occurred in the cemetery, which caused such a stir of emotion among the friends that they committed to one another to live their lives sold out to anything God required of them.
And they did it, too. I know because I was the youngest one in the room that evening and I have documented how each of them lived out their life. Of the twelve who made a promise to live for God, nine are now dead. Other than Jude Sodestrom, who hanged himself in his bedroom closet shortly after Russell’s funeral, eight of the men, including Peter Longley, have been murdered or executed in various countries throughout the world. At this moment, Johnny Jackson is in prison in Turkey.
Perhaps one day, I will write down the details of each of these ordinary people and their extraordinary lives. As for now, I have done what I could for the memory of my friend and mentor Peter Longley. I have come to peace with his death, but how I do long to hear him say to me just once more, “Did I ever tell you what happened to the people of Wilkins, North Carolina the winter Russell Hicks came to town?”