“Lightning Crashes,” a song by the group Live released in 1994, holds a special meaning to me. The song itself is essentially about how life, at any moment and without warning, can change completely in an instant. But I didn’t learn that lesson at the moment of my arrest. I learned this lesson on June 5, 1996 – 20 years ago today.
Two people I went to high school with, Quentin Atkinson and Ashley O’Rourke, were killed on June 5, 1996 when they were struck by lightning in a parking lot in east Wichita. Only a few weeks after the end of our sophomore year, summer had just begun, and the two of them were hanging out in a parking lot with some friends after the passing of a run-of-the-mill summer night thunder storm. With the storm seemingly moved into the distance, a group of 16-year-old kids with newly acquired driver’s licenses decided to park in a parking lot and enjoy the freedom and possibilities of a youthful summer night.
And that’s when the bolt struck. The lightning traveled through Quentin, a 6’5″ basketball player and into Ashley, a 5’5″ cheerleader as the well-known couple embraced while talking casually among their circle of friends. The lightning bolt blew a chunk out of the parking lot asphalt larger than a basketball. Quentin died almost instantly; Ashley died a few days later.
That is a series of events in my life that I will never forget. I learned that day that in a mere instant, everything can change, forever, leaving nothing the same, ever again. And all-too-often, there is nothing anyone can do to stop these changes. So we have to be ready. Life is too unpredictable to become content with “the way things are,” only to be sent into utter upheaval when everything has changed. But here’s the thing: When things really do change – when something happens, and nothing will ever be the same ever again – we learn one important detail about the world around us. We learn the true meaning of love.
I don’t mean the kind of romantic love in chick flicks and romance novels. I mean the type of love that is bestowed upon all, far beyond friendship and full of compassion: Agape love. When tragedy strikes, love is often the unexpected but deeply needed byproduct that enables those most impacted to persevere.
The day after Quentin died, the principal at my high school opened the school back up and allowed us all to flood to the auditorium and grieve together. Hundreds of people showed up, exchanging hugs, and embraces of sympathy, comfort and most importantly, love.
“I knew that the one thing that we all needed was to be together,” the principal said from the podium as she spoke to those in attendance that evening. One at a time, people came to the microphone and spoke, giving messages of sympathy and encouragement to all of us who struggled to maintain emotional composure. News cameras filmed the impromptu service and broadcast it that night; one camera angle included my mother and me as we sat together among the crowd. But the important thing was that we all came together, to be together, because one common denominator of all our lives had changed, and would never be the same.
When I was arrested, my family and closest friends formed a system of support for me, because they knew things would never be the same for me and they showered me with love, regardless of my terrible choices and guilt. I learned through that which of my family and friends loved me unconditionally, and which of them had love that was merely conditional (which, in fact, is not love at all).
On June 5, 1996, and in the subsequent days of that tragedy, I learned numerous invaluable life lessons that remain with me to this day. One of those lessons was the obvious one: The value of life. But one of those lessons has become even more important as I evolve beyond the battles I’ve won and lost with my own personal demons: The value of love. A single bolt of lightning taught me that.
Quentin was on the basketball team. And if there is one image that is forever burned into my mind from that series of events, it is something I saw at Quentin’s funeral. Following the service, those in attendance stood outside the church and awaited the carrying of the casket from the church to the hearse. After a brief wait, the doors swung open and I looked up to see the casket of my 16-year-old friend being carried from the church; carrying the casket on one side was his teammate (who would go on to play several seasons in the NBA) and his basketball coach (who had become a legend in world of Kansas athletics). And behind them, the remaining pallbearers were Quentin’s teammates as well. Being an athlete myself, there was just something so emotionally powerful about seeing my friend’s teammates and coach carrying the casket of their fellow player. I used to regret not taking a picture, but now I realize I don’t need one; my memory of that moment is that clear.
It’s been twenty years since that day. Twenty years. And I continue to learn lessons about life – most of them, the hard way – but those first two real life lessons were perhaps the most important: Everything can change in an instant; and love – Agape Love – is the tie that binds us all together when the world feels like it’s falling apart.
“Love is the answer, and you know that for sure.”