There have been many turning points in my life, but the most significant one was when I was eight years old. I was the normal kid, my biological parents were still together and I had a younger brother. My father was a policeman and my mom worked out of the home with Pampered Chef, a cooking company. We were the typical American family until October 5, 2000.
My dad worked third shift and my mom was off work that day so on October 4 we spent all day together. Ice-skating and hockey was a huge part of our lives, so naturally we decided to go to the new ice rink my grandma managed and had the whole place to ourselves. We skated for hours and then went out to dinner. After dinner we went back home so my brother and I could go to sleep early enough to go to school the next day and my dad could go work the third shift.
Around three o’clock in the morning on October 5 I woke up to a lot of commotion and police cars surrounding my house. I could hear my mom crying and people trying to calm her down, and as an eight-year-old girl I was scared and nervous to go downstairs and see what the problem was. Eventually, I got the courage to go down the stairs and was greeted by a nervous police officer that I had never seen before. Since I was so young I do not remember in great detail how the conversations went, but I do remember just being so frustrated because no one would tell me what was happening and why my mom was not present. The only details they would give me was that my dad was in a bad car accident. I was so young at the time that I truly could not comprehend that my world was going to be turned completely upside down.
It did not take long for my grandma to get to my house. I sat on my couch in the living room with her, my brother, and a few police officers for hours. Finally around eight in the morning my mom approached the living room with the police chaplain. At the time I had no idea who he was, but now he is a close family friend. Once they walked into the room, I was positive my dad would come in right behind them in a wheelchair. This was not the case. My mom was in so much pain she could not speak or comfort my brother and I, so the Chaplain had to do all the talking. After explaining the fact that my father did not make it through the accident I ran upstairs to my room to be alone. I was only eight years old, but by that time I knew enough about death that I was heartbroken and devastated. The accident happened because a semi-driver ran a stoplight. That is one thing that drives me crazy, the fact that it was so preventable.
The next week is a complete blur to me. My family is very well known in Fort Wayne, my hometown, so the amount of support we had was unbelievable. Not only that, but because my dad was a police officer, many people have had to deal with them at one point or another. The viewing lasted from eight in the morning until around midnight, with a constant line. Although I was so torn up about my father’s passing, I loved that I got to see literally every person that was in my life, plus making new relationships. My brother and I would run around outside in the cold October weather greeting and entertaining everyone that was waiting in line for hours.
Not only was the viewing full of people, the funeral has gone down in Fort Wayne’s history. It was noted that the funeral had the biggest attendance of any other funeral in Fort Wayne ever. The funeral was held at the biggest church in Fort Wayne at the time called Blackhawk Christian Church. It was completely full and many close friends and family got the chance to speak. The whole funeral process was so chaotic and such a hard time I have very little memory of it. I honestly believe that my conscience has blocked many of the details out of my memory.
I would do anything to have my father back, only if I even got the chance to say goodbye to him. I know that will never happen and it is a hard thing to live with, but I have become a stronger person by moving on with my life. A death in general can be a pivotal point in ones life, especially when you are an eight-year-old girl whose father passes away suddenly.
Even though the memories of the initial days of his passing are painful, I wish I could remember more because I want to preserve every last memory of my father as possible. Our time together was so short, but monumental in my life. Because of his passing, it has been my dream to be a youth counselor. I want to help children and young adults to be able to move past hardships in life and make a difference in someone’s life. Not only has this tragic accident showed me what my purpose is in life, but also it has connected me with so many amazing people. The other police survivors have been so influential on my life and I have even impacted other survivors’ families by helping them in their time of need. If this accident never occurred I cannot imagine what type of person I would be or where I would be going in life.
In a recent column, I asked readers if they had discovered a purpose in life and, if so, how they had discovered it. A few thousand wrote essays. I was struck by how elemental life is. Most people found their purpose either through raising kids or confronting illness or death.
Scott Addington writes, “As is often the case, my purpose became clearly evident after I had stopped looking for it. On October 11, 1995, my daughter was born. Beginning with that moment, there has never been the slightest doubt regarding the purpose and source of meaning in my life. Being a father is the most meaningful and rewarding pursuit a man could ever hope to experience.”
Not only in parenting, but also in teaching. The essays from teachers ring with special clarity and force. Many of them see clearly how their day-to-day activities are in line with their ultimate end. This has its downside after people leave teaching.
Carolyn from Michigan writes, “Before class, I sometimes would sit in the chair of a student who was having a lot of trouble and pray that I might be a blessing to him that day. Yes, for 37 years I was a teacher, the last 25 as a high school special education teacher. That was my purpose; that was my calling.
“But now I am retired, and I am adrift. What is my purpose now? I struggle with it every day. When I was teaching, I would bound out of bed at 6:15 every morning. Now I wake early, but stay under the covers, filled with a world’s worth of anxiety. It might have been better had I died while trying to teach students with learning disabilities the basics of geometry.”
Quite frequently purpose emerges from loss. Greg Sunter from Brisbane, Australia, writes: “Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumor. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than six months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work — to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.
“In his book ‘A Hidden Wholeness,’ Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.”
Some people’s lives organize around a certain role or calling. “My moniker could be ‘formidable advocate,’” writes Georgian Lussier. After her brother suffered a brain injury, she learned to help people work through the maze of the health care system. Now she helps older women find work.
But, for many people, the purpose of life is simply to live it fully.
Jae Brown was driving after smoking weed and drinking when he was pulled over. He confessed everything to the cop, who saw that Brown was in college and whispered, “Don’t let your friends get you in trouble you can’t get yourself out of,” and let him go. “My purpose in life,” Brown writes, “is to mentor, provide that whisper in someone’s ear that changes their life.”
The great struggle in essay after essay is to remain emotionally vital and intellectually alive.
Zachary Krowitz, 21, read the essays written in response to the column and concluded, “This desire for something that is surely true is present in all of us, and reflects an attempt to know what we really want. … Unfortunately, based both on the essays written in response to your column and common experience, such meaning is often lost as one travels through life, emotions become duller and less clear.”
Alayne Crossman, 42, is able to keep her emotion flowing at full pitch. “Without the love of my family I wouldn’t be who I am today. It means I cry during ‘Frozen,’ every single time. It means I cry when I listen to Van Morrison’s ‘Ancient Highway.’ I am ridiculously sentimental because I choose to remain open to this vast, messy thing we call life.”
For many people, the purpose of life is to have more life. That may not have defined people’s purpose in past eras, when it might have had more to do with the next life or obedience to a creed. Many today seek to live with hearts wide open.
© 2015, New York Times News ServiceDavid Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.