“What’s going on?” I asked my neighbor, startled at the sight of emergency vehicles lining our street.
“It’s Bob,” he said, shuffling his feet in the grass.
My heart fell to my stomach like an anchor in the ocean. My head, my heart, my stomach suddenly felt heavy, so heavy.
“Oh, no, not Bob.” I thought to myself.
“Not Bob,” I repeated in a whisper.
The heavy feeling intensified, as a tear slipped down my cheek.
I felt like I was drowning.
Memories of the past 10 years swirled around in my mind and, like an undertow, pulled me into a seemingly endless abyss of heartache and regret.
Bob had lived in our neighborhood for as long as I could remember. He was retired and lived a quiet life, alone in his house. He usually only caught my attention when he would drive by in his light blue Mazda RX-7 with his massive black Labrador dog hanging out the passenger window, or when my kids and I would run past his house on our daily walk. We ran because his house and yard smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and we are a bit sensitive to the smell.
“Why do people smoke?” my daughter asked, her nose wrinkled up to show her distaste. “It’s yucky!”
“Well,” I said, after contemplating her question for a moment, “sometimes people do things that aren’t good for them because they feel like they HAVE to do it. It’s called having an addiction. Just because you have an addiction doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Is there something you do that you wish you could stop doing?”
“Yeah,” my daughter answered without hesitating, “biting my fingernails! I really want to stop biting them, but when I look down at them it seems like they are smiling at me and saying, ‘Just bite me one more time, just one more time and then you’ll never have to bite me again.’ So I bite them and then tell myself I’m never going to bite them again. But the next thing I know they are smiling up at me again and I feel like I’ll EXPLODE if I don’t bite them one more time.”
“Do you think people who are trying to stop smoking might feel the same way?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, then added, “just because a person smokes doesn’t make them a bad person.”
My other kids nodded in agreement.
Several years later, as Christmas time approached, our family prepared gift baskets to take to our neighbors. We included some goodies, some hand-drawn artwork from the kids, and a movie about the life of Jesus Christ.
“Who should we deliver Christmas baskets to?” I asked, as we made final preparations.
“Chuck and Janie! James and Allie! Della! William!” they shouted excitedly.
“What about Bob?” I asked.
“No, let’s not go there,” my daughter said, shaking her head, “his house smells too much like cigarette smoke.”
“And I’m afraid of the big dog, ” another daughter piped in.
“Well, don’t you think Bob deserves to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” they mumbled, nodding sheepishly.
“We have to be careful not to judge people,” I added as an afterthought, “because we never know who might be searching for the truth.”
I saw three heads nod in agreement.
So it was decided—we were going to visit Bob.
The air was thick with cigarette smoke as we approached his front door. I could see my kids holding their breath. The dog, catching a glimpse of us from the front window, started barking, sending my kids running for the safety of the bushes, the desire to hold their breath gone as they ran for their lives.
I rang the doorbell and coaxed the kids to return to the front door. They came, but stood cowering behind their dad as the front door opened slightly—just enough for Bob to stick his head out, but not enough for the dog to escape into the front yard. The kids were grateful for that.
“Hi, Bob,” I said, with probably a bit too much enthusiasm, “we’re your neighbors. We just wanted to stop by to wish you a Merry Christmas and give you this Christmas basket.”
His face lit up.
“You brought that for me? Really? Thank you so much! That was so nice of you. Wow!”
He was still glowing.
I was surprised. I thought we would just drop off the basket and be on our way, but it almost seemed as if he would have liked to invite us inside for a visit.
There was a moment of awkward silence, so I handed him the basket and said, “Well, we hope you have a Merry Christmas!”, then turned and walked away.
“Thank you! Thank you!” he called out, as we waved goodbye from the street.
“Wow! Did you see how happy that made him?” I asked my family. “Aren’t you glad we decided to go see him?”
“Yes,” they sang out in unison, “we’re so glad we went to see him. He was so nice.”
A couple years went by. We would wave to Bob when he and his dog drove by. He would smile a kind of nervous smile and wave back; his dog would bark. That was the extent of our contact with him until the day we ran into him in front of his house.
The kids and I were just finishing up our walk when I saw Bob in the distance. If I had just been with my daughters I would have thought nothing of it, but my son was with us, too, and, being at the age where he was comfortable with saying exactly how he felt, and having recently taken to yelling, “Oh, no! I smell cigarette smoke. Hold your breath and run!!” around any person he saw smoking, I told my kids to quicken their pace so we could hurry home.
“Why?” they asked.
“Just hurry!” I whispered, praying that my son wouldn’t say anything that would embarrass us.
The kids were quick to obey and followed me down the sidewalk like baby ducklings following their mama.
“Hello!” I said to Bob, as I walked briskly past him. Said with a bright smile, I was sure it was a good enough greeting.
But wait…why was he standing the way he was, so near to the sidewalk and rolling forward on his toes as if he were anxious to talk to me?
“Go back and talk with him.” It was a distinct impression that I’ve learned to recognize as a prompting from the Holy Spirit.
“Oh, I just can’t right now.” I quickly told myself. “My son just made it safely past him without saying a word and I don’t want to go back and risk having him say something embarrassing. I’ll be sure to stop and talk with Bob the next time I see him.”
It sounded like a reasonable enough plan, and I really meant to carry it out, but I never got the chance. The next time I heard Bob’s name was when I stood gazing at the long line of emergency vehicles lining our street and heard my neighbor say, “It’s Bob. He took his life.”
Looking back, I realized that if anyone needed the hope and good news that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, it was Bob.
I wondered, “Did he enjoy the items we gave him in his Christmas basket as he sat at home, all alone except for his dog? Did he watch the movie about Jesus Christ and feel the power of the Savior’s unconditional love burst forth through the Spirit?”
I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but what if, in those days before his death, he had questions about life and hope and faith and Jesus Christ? What if I had followed the distinct impression to go back and talk to him during our walk instead of being in such a rush to get home? Could I have said something… anything…to change the course of his actions?
I don’t know, and that question still haunts me.
I cried for weeks after his death, and am crying even now as I think about the life that was lost, and about the lost opportunity to share the good news of the gospel.
I made a commitment at that time to never again let anything stop me from sharing the light of the gospel with another person—especially not a little cigarette smoke.
Two weeks later, as my family entered the church building for our Sunday meetings, I noticed an unfamiliar face. As I approached the woman to ask if this was her first time visiting our church, I could smell the distinct scent of cigarette smoke. I didn’t hesitate for a minute.
“Hi, you must be visiting. Would you like to sit with our family during the meeting?”
“Yes, thank you!” she said with a smile.
As we joined in singing songs and listening to the speakers, I would occasionally catch an overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke. When I did, I found myself thinking about Bob. I hoped that he had found a measure of peace, that he had been reacquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that he had come to realize that Jesus Christ is The Way to true happiness.
And I hoped that he had forgiven me.
The culmination of all my experiences thus far, both good and bad, have taught me that Jesus Christ is indeed The Way, the only Way, to complete forgiveness of ourselves and others, to peace, and to happiness and fulfillment. Only He can free us from the heavy chains of heartache and despair, save us from drowning, and fill us with amaranthine hope.
We have but to follow Him.