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Saturday, August 07, 2010

In memory of Mike Ashley

"The good die young."

Those were the words of my grandmother, twenty-five years ago this evening. And when those words were the most semblance of comfort that an eleven-year old kid had to grasp - even if he didn't really understand what it meant at the time - on what was at the time the absolute worst day of his life...

...well, they kinda stick with ya, even a quarter century later.

Heck, I can even still remember what I was wearing that day, what Granny was wearing, the most miserable dinner of pizza that I would ever have, all of the vehicles like neighbors' cars and the ambulance and the deputy sheriff cruisers that descended on our farm that afternoon. I can even tell you what show that I watched on television that night, trying and failing to lose myself, to stop thinking about it all...

...but most of all, I remember crying. Being inside the house with my sister and our two dachshund puppies, watching from the windows. I still remember calling my life-long best friend Chad, telling him about what happened: now I realize that I was desperate for a voice to talk to. And I couldn't stop crying. Harder than I ever had before until that day.

It was the ambulance arriving that first made me panic. The lady who took care of my other grandmother in the house across the road, she came to our front door. The first words that came out of me were "Did something happen to Dad?!"

No, Dad was okay.

But Mike had been killed.

Mike Ashley: 19 years old. Brown haired, a little bit of a mustache. As upstanding and Christian of a young man as you were ever likely to meet. He knew Dad because Dad had been friends with his father. And early in the summer of 1985, Mike started working on our dairy farm as a hired hand.

Being able to say that I grew up and worked on a dairy farm: that is something that I am very proud of. And with each passing year I realize how much happiness there could be found in that. I couldn't do too much, being about ten when I started. But on occasion Dad did let me help a calve to be born. And I can honestly say that I have milked cows by hand (go watch that scene in Witness where Harrison Ford's character is up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows on that Amish farm... and then imagine your friend and humble blogger doing that :-).

It was the people that Dad hired to work on our farm that I remember most vividly. Maybe that had something to do with my outlook on human nature, 'cuz at a very early age I had come to know so many kinds of people. They were white. They were black. They were migrant laborers from Mexico (some of whom spoke not a word of English, but we all seemed to understand each other somehow). They were my cousin Craig and my Uncle John. Some of them were characters in their own right. Others were - in their own way - downright silly. All of them worked hard, sometimes for a season and then going back to whatever or wherever, sometimes coming back to work again.

Mike Ashley though...

He worked as hard as anyone. Always cheerful, always smiling and with a twinkle in his eye. He was looking to go into farming as well, so this was kinda like college for him.

He was with us on the farm for two months. And in that time, well...

...he became the closest thing to an older brother that I would ever have.

I fast came to look up to Mike. Maybe it was the noble qualities that he had: qualities that in retrospect, I decided that I wanted to have in my own life. He became a role model to me.

And the thing is, I was admittedly pretty offbeat even as a kid. Mike was the first "grownup" who I had any extended time with who was sincerely interested in the things that I was interested in. And that had a lot of appeal to me.

So a lot of times in the afternoon, after Dad and Mike and whoever else had lunch and Dad took his usual nap before the afternoon milking, Mike would want to see the books that I was into. He enjoyed reading my comic books. He really loved going through my stash of MAD Magazines. And he even thought that my Transformers toys were very cool.

That is the last, best memory that I have of Mike. He was in my room on the afternoon of August 6th, and I was showing him how to convert my army of Autobots and Decepticons into their respective cars, trucks, guns, cassette tapes, what have you. Mike was instantly hooked on them! Pretty soon he was transformin' 'em just as well as me or anybody.

That was the afternoon of August 6th, 1985. And that night I found myself thanking God for the friendship that I had with Mike.

It was the very next day that Mike died on our farm.

He had been on a tractor, scraping cow manure into a manure spreader. And if you don't know already cow manure is some of the best fertilizer imaginable. On a small farm it is a very valued and precious resource. And it was something that had been done like a zillion times.

It worked like this: the manure spreader was parked below the high end of a ramp. Whoever was on the tractor would tow a bladed attachment and scrape manure that had come out of the barn and cattle stalls, off the ramp and into the spreader.

That is what Mike was doing.

To this day we don't know what caused it to happen. Maybe he saw a deer off in the field and was momentarily distracted.

The tractor drove over the top of the ramp and flipped over. Mike was killed instantly.

It was Dad who found him a short while later. He saw smoke coming from behind the barn. And then he saw the overturned tractor with Mike pinned beneath it.

A short while later the emergency vehicles and lots of cars and trucks started arriving. Mom got the call at work and rushed home immediately. She dropped my sister and me off at her mother's that night.

That's when Granny remarked that "The good die young."

Twenty-five years later and I'm still trying to suss it all out. I'd still like to know why God took Mike away from us: so young. So upstanding. So good...

He would have been 44 now. He should have known what it was like to be a husband and a father, 'cuz there's no doubt in my mind that he would have been the best. He should have had all the opportunities that a person as sweet and virtuous as he was... well, I think good people deserve more, anyway!

It's enough to make me question my own life. I'm now 36. Still young (and like to think that I'll always have that childlike quality no matter how many years go by), but I've had many more years than Mike ever got. Almost by twice as much. I look at myself and I don't see a necessarily "good" person. I see a flawed, messed-up guy who... doesn't deserve anything at all.

So help me, I have told God more times than I can count how unfair it is. That He would take someone like Mike Ashley from us and leave me - a complete screw-up who fails too many times more than I've ever succeeded - still here.

(Yeah I'll go ahead and admit it, for the first time: I am now divorced. And there is more that I am feeling led to write about that and have been feeling it for some time, but for now God is making me wait on that. It's not something to be proud of but at the same time, I cannot but feel that God has used this period to grow and mature me and make me appreciate His grace more than I ever have before... but that's an essay for another time.)

My life has been one cluster-#&@% after another. Why couldn't God have taken me? Why, why did He take Mike instead? Why does He seem to always take the people who deserve to have long, full lives on this earth?

"The good die young."

That is the closest thing to an answer that I have ever had. Maybe more so now than I ever did then, I have to draw some comfort from them.

Because God's ways... really aren't our ways at all. We expect Him to hand out goodies to us, rarely stopping to understand that this world is still a fallen place and tragedy does come from it.

I might still question Him at times. But, I am no longer angry with Him. About anything that has happened in my life. At long last I can see, and be thankful, that in spite of ourselves God doesn't mess up. That from each thing, for those who do love Him and seek after Him, He will never cease to eternally labor for our benefit.

A quarter century later, and I am thankful to God more than ever before: that He put Mike Ashley into our lives, for however brief a span.

And now you know, dear reader, that once there was a man and his name was Mike Ashley. And that he was a good man. He was someone that I have long strived to honor (and often missing the mark) with my own life and my own actions. And if others had the honor of knowing Mike, he would have left them with just as wonderful an impression from his strength of character, his humbleness, and his enthusiasm.

He was taken from this earthly realm twenty-five years ago today. I still miss him. And I still love him as the older brother that I never had.

And I do rejoice that he was here... and that he will be waiting for us all someday.


Jenna St. Hilaire said...

That's one of the most beautiful eulogies I've ever read, my friend. May God rest his soul, and comfort those who mourn.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that story Chris. I worked a farm during that time frame myself and am now also in my 40s...I had several brushes with death while doing farm work over a period of 4 years while I went through college.

It is sobering to know that someone of my age didnt survive the job I had at the time.

Take consolation knowing that Mike has been in Glory all these years and thus been spared the pain and agony of our sin filled world.

Anonymous said...

Truly wonderful words! So well written! May you find peace in the fact that he waits for you with the Father.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Chris. Mike would be honored to know that he is remembered, even 25 years later, I am sure.

And thanks also, for letting your readers know just a bit about your personal journey. You are being prayed for, my brother.

- an old friend.

Brian Fesperman said...

Consider that perhaps Mike's destiny was actually fulfilled by having a positive impact on you!

As they say, you are only burdened with that which you can handle, and that the challenges and mistakes are what actually help develop and build that truly good person inside you. This gives you wisdom that the "purely good" will likely never experience.

Typically, the "good" accomplish little other than being a role model for those that consider themselves "less than perfect" and set a benchmark to strive for.

Those road-weary people, those that are "touched", are the ones that truly make a difference in this world. Through that, the destinies of those good people that we lose way too soon, are fulfilled.

I have found that the best teachers are the ones that have experienced life beyond the text book. The truly "good" serve as our text. It is up to the rest of us to stumble through our life, dealing with it's realities, trying to find some balance between that "text" and the environment in which we exist.

Remember... without dark, there can be no light.

You (like the rest of us) may be flawed, but your intentions are not. Mike has influenced you and left his mark. That, my friend, is the best tribute anyone could hope for. Take comfort in that!

Unknown said...

Now it makes sense. This was beautifully written. He would be proud of you Chris, of that I'm certain :)