It happened on June 24, 1935. Four young people were double dating. The young man who was driving tried to take a curve going too fast. He lost control. The car flipped several times, ejecting three of the passengers. The fourth was pinned under the car. The others survived their injuries. She didn’t. Elizabeth Wilbanks died that night. She was 17 years old. She had just graduated from high school.
The boy she was dating that night was the driver of the car. He was Jewish. Why should that matter? These young people lived in Anniston, northeast Alabama … in the ‘30’s. A young Baptist girl was dating a Jewish boy in the Deep South. You would have thought there might have been a scandal. No. The community rallied around the young people and the grieving family.
Elizabeth’s older brother by two years was a student at the University of Alabama. His parents got word to him; he needed to come home. Something terrible had happened. It wouldn’t be the last time. Thirteen years later, he would receive another summons. His younger brother was in the hospital in Anniston. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 24 years old when he died.
He lost both siblings in his young adult years. In between their deaths, he served in the 90th Division of the US army in the European Theater from 1943 to 1945. He came home with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. A lot of his buddies were left behind.
Life is full of “what ifs” – you take the left fork instead of the right; circumstances develop that force your hand in unexpected ways; young lives are cut short; dreams are altered or shattered. Misery happens to all of us sooner or later. Our broken world serves up a great deal of pain and heartache. How do you live with the “what ifs” of life?
I wish I had all the answers. Even with the consoling help of Scripture, we can be overwhelmed by the “what ifs” we ponder. The young man who lost so much in those years had two amazing parents. After all, they had lost two children and fretted the loss of their oldest in war. They didn’t approach their sorrows and fears with blind faith. Instead, they practiced a willing trust that didn’t demand all the answers. They chose to live with hope. They laughed and sang with joy, a joy that sustained them when their hearts were heavy. Their surviving son learned well. He also chose to live with optimistic, joyful faith. He modeled that faith among those he loved and served. If he had lived, he would be 100 on July 16. We don’t mourn his death; we celebrate his life – full of faith, hope, and love. He was my dad.