REDEMPTION

On a cool overcast Saturday morning in early March of 1983, Russell Lynwood was driving alone on a street he had been down countless times. He was familiar with each house he passed. He recognized certain vehicles in the driveways, and he knew which families kept their yards the neatest. Russell was in no particular hurry. He was just running over to the local hardware store to see about buying some parts to repair a leaky faucet. But what he thought would be a simple errand was going to turn out to be an unthinkable event that would change the rest of his life.

Russell was a kind and thoughtful man. He was a Special Ed teacher and he loved his job. The students he worked with brought a joy to his life that was hard to describe. As he witnessed their progress he felt a sense of accomplishment that made all his efforts seem worthwhile. The connections he developed with them and their families added a richness to his life that made him feel completely blessed. Outside of his marriage, his students were the most important thing in the world to him.

On this particular morning, Russell was paying full attention to his driving. He was observing the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour, and he did not have the radio on. Traffic was light and it seemed like everyone was getting a late start on a lazy morning. But suddenly Russell noticed something out of the corner of his eye. From the right side of the street a red ball rolled out from behind a parked car directly into his path. It was followed immediately by a little boy. In a split second Russell slammed on the brakes with all of his strength and desperately yanked the wheel as hard as he could to the left, but it was too late. He heard and felt the sickening impact as his vehicle struck the child.

The force of the impact hurled the small body of four year old Sean Larson over 15 feet. The young boy hit the pavement and rolled several times before becoming motionless. Russell’s car had come to a stop, but he couldn’t loosen his grip on the wheel. His heart was pounding, and he felt sick at his stomach. As he sat motionless, he couldn’t bring himself to open the door. Slowly he became aware of other people. They crowded around Sean’s body, temporarily blocking Russell’s view. He could feel tears burning his eyes, and he blinked to try to hold them back. Through the mental fog he heard someone yell that the boy was not breathing. He watched in disbelief as people moved back to make room for a woman who began to perform CPR.

Feeling dazed, Russell finally struggled to open his door. He stepped out, but his knees buckled, and he had to lean against his car for support. In shock, he stood alone until a few people noticed him and rushed over. A lady touched him on the arm and told him that it wasn’t his fault. The child came out of nowhere, and there was no way he could have missed him. Her words were meaningless. A person kneeling near Sean called out that the little boy was not responding. Russell began to softly cry. How could this have happened? He was doing everything you were supposed to do. He was driving safely. He was following the rules. That child should not be lying in the street fighting for his life.

Off in the distance Russell could hear sirens. Help was on the way, but it might be too late. Within minutes a police officer was by his side, and EMTs took over the life saving efforts on the little boy. Everything was now a blur. Russell tried to clear his mind, but he could not focus. The officer began asking questions, but Russell could only think about the child. Time seemed to be suspended, and everything appeared to slow down. Slowly Russell realized that by harming this human life he had also destroyed his own life. Nothing would ever be the same. This day on the calendar would bring recurring pain for however long he lived.

***************************

For months the horror of that morning haunted Russell every hour of the day. It was almost impossible to sleep and when he did, he kept dreaming about the moment of the impact over and over again. He had no appetite, and he quickly began to lose weight. His energy was drained, and he no longer took an interest in the things that were once important to him. Friends and family did not know how to help. Everyone tried to point out that he was a good person, and that it wasn’t his fault. It was just “one of those things” that unfortunately happens in life, but their opinions brought him no comfort. In Russell’s mind being a good person did not change the fact that he had inadvertently harmed the life of an innocent child. He knew that Sean Larson had survived, but he also knew that the little boy was left with catastrophic injuries. His young life was changed forever, as was Russell’s.

Sean’s parents did not blame him for the tragedy. The police report made it clear that he was driving safely and he’d done what little he could to avoid hitting their son, but their lack of blame did nothing to ease Russell’s sense of guilt. After six months of living as a ghost, his wife pleaded with him to seek professional treatment. Reluctantly he did, but the scars were now too deep. A year after the accident he stopped functioning and withdrew from his wife. The job he loved had become a nightmare for him. His students constantly reminded him of the little boy who was now living with many of the same challenges they faced. Each time he looked into their faces he was reminded of the Saturday morning that had changed everything. Eventually he had to leave the job he’d dedicated ten years of his life to as he was overwhelmed by a profound depression that did not respond to therapy or medication. He was lost.

The mental breakdown was now complete and by the second anniversary of the accident. Russell was no longer someone his family recognized. Once he became incapable of caring for himself it fell to his wife to meet his daily needs. Over the next nine years she struggled to care for the man she loved with all her heart, but eventually she was mentally worn down and physically exhausted. After many consultations and evaluations, the agonizing decision was made to place her husband in a long-term care facility. He was forty-seven years old.

For more than two decades Russell Lynwood led a quiet, solitary existence. His depression did not make him hostile or aggressive, but rather he became completely passive and unresponsive. His level of awareness and interaction depended on the particular day. Most of the time he did not participate in any activities or join in the social aspects of his community. He preferred to be left alone with the tormented thoughts that rendered him incapable of finding peace of mind.

***************************

It was in the middle of Russell’s twenty-second year at the facility that Louise Braden was hired as a nurse. Although she had extensive experience in the field, she had never met a patient that touched her heart like Mr. Lynwood. His pain was so evident that it was difficult to not be drawn into his world of suffering. Because he rarely spoke, it was challenging to connect with him on a personal level. But day after day Louise tried. She did everything she could think of to make his life as comfortable as possible, however, each time she thought she had made some progress he would slip away again. For months she gently tried to coax him into getting out of his room so that he could occupy his mind with thoughts that did not revolve around that fateful morning so many years before. She tried to interact with him in ways that could break his destructive cycle of self-loathing but nothing worked – until she discovered his compassion for people with disabilities.

Louise had noticed that the only people Russell ever took any interest in were the handful of residents who had developmental disabilities. Knowing that he had been a Special Ed teacher, it was understandable that he still felt a connection to that part of his life. One day, in her efforts to engage Russell in conversation, Louise casually mentioned that she frequently volunteered with a choir made up of adults with intellectual and physical challenges. The group of singers had originally been created as part of a small community effort to engage individuals with a wide variety of disabilities, but the choir’s popularity had grown to the point where they now traveled all over the state performing at all types of venues, large and small.

To her surprise, Russell immediately began to pay attention to her every word. She explained that the name of the choir was Redemption and that they performed a wide variety music with the underlying themes of understanding, acceptance and love. She said that all of the performers had challenges, but it did not matter. Each individual added their voice, and together they created something so beautiful it was breathtaking. She went on to explain that one gentleman in particular usually sang a solo during each concert, and he was blessed with incredible talent. She paused to give Russell time to absorb everything she had told him.

Through the years that he had lived at the facility there had many concerts and performances, but Russell rarely attended. Although he had once loved music, it no longer had the soothing effect that it had once had in his life. However, this choir was different. The fact that they had disabilities kindled something in his mind and took him back to the happiest times in his life when he worked with his students.

Several moments passed and then suddenly Russell began to speak, catching Louise by surprise. In the three months she had known him he had rarely spoken and then it was only a few words at a time. “What kind of music do they perform?” There was the slightest hint of excitement in his voice.

“They carefully choose songs for their melodies but more importantly for their lyrics.”

A serious look came over Russell’s face and he almost whispered, “Do they sing any sad or depressing songs?”

“No.” Louise assured him. “It is impossible to hear them sing and not be inspired by their uplifting message.”

“Tell me about the people in the choir.” But before she could answer, Russell added, “And please be as specific as possible.”

She thought for a moment and then she described the incredibly diverse group, “The choir is composed of people with intellectual challenges, physical challenges and individuals who have both.”

“How many are in the choir?” He asked.

Louise was thrilled that they were engaged in an actual conversation. “There are currently thirty people who sing in Redemption. Some of them have been with the choir for more than ten years. They range in age from twenty-one to sixty-five.”

Russell cautiously asked, “I know they have the right to privacy, but in general terms what types of conditions or issues are you talking about?”

She took a deep breath and started detailing the various challenges. “The singers have Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. Others have intellectual issues because of traumatic brain injuries, strokes and brain tumors. Some people use walkers and some use wheelchairs. They also have an individual who signs while they perform.”

She watched him consider all the information she had given him, but then she was caught off guard by his next question.

Russell looked at the floor and softly asked, “Is there anyone in the choir with a problem like me?”

The question stopped her cold. She took a second to compose herself and then she answered honestly, “I just don’t know.”

With that answer, Russell seemed to shut down. She attempted to keep the interaction going, but his attention faded away. However, as she left him, she could not help but believe that perhaps she had found a way to reach him, and she knew exactly what she was going to do.

***************************

The next day Louise spoke to the administration of the facility, and they, in turn, contacted the Redemption choir director. A performance was scheduled for two weeks later on a Friday night. The concert would take place in the grand assembly hall so a large crowd could be accommodated. Louise could only hope that she would be able to convince Russell to attend.

That weekend Marjorie Lynwood came to visit her husband, and Louise had the opportunity to tell her about the conversation she had with Russell and about the upcoming concert. Marjorie thought it was a wonderful idea and said she would also encourage him to attend. She thanked Louise for her compassion.

Over the months, the concern that the two women shared for Russell had created a bond built on mutual respect. Now both of them dared to hope that seeing a group of people rise above the expectations of others would somehow resonate with a man who could not escape a prison filled with guilt and shame.

Marjorie felt like she could bare her soul to Louise. “The day my husband hit that child with his car, both of their lives were changed forever.” She lowered her voice and continued in an almost reverential tone. “The victim’s family reached out to us on multiple occasions. They wanted Russell to know that they did not blame him for what happened, but he could never bring himself to face them. When he had his last breakdown and we placed him here, the little boy’s mother contacted me and told me how sorry she was that things had turned out the way they did. When I asked how her son was doing she told me that he had a mild intellectual challenge as well as multiple physical issues, but that he had adjusted to his situation and accepted his life without complaint. She said that he rarely spoke about the accident, but when he did he would only say that it was something that had happened and there was nothing that could be done about it.”

Marjorie continued as a deep sadness colored her words, “Because of Russell’s teaching experience with children who had special needs, he knew what the young man would be facing. He had spent years trying to help individuals with intellectual challenges, and now he mistakenly believed he was responsible for altering a small boy’s life in such a dramatic way that he could not forgive himself. When that red ball rolled in front of his car it created a reality he could not accept.”

Louise put her arm around Marjorie’s shoulder and said, “Let’s see what happens at the concert. Maybe the performers and their music will be able to reach Russell in a way that will have meaning for him.”

***************************

The two weeks went by quickly, and when Friday evening arrived Louise was still not certain that Russell would attend the performance. She kept watching for him as people filed in, and she was losing hope when finally at the last moment she saw him cautiously enter the room with his wife and take a seat. He spoke to no one and did not make eye contact with those around him, but at least he was there. Louise was thrilled, and she allowed herself to have a glimmer of hope that this night might be a turning point for someone who had suffered so much.

The large assembly hall was filled to capacity as residents, their families and staff were all present. It took several minutes for the choir to take their places. Once everyone was in position, the lights were adjusted and the concert began. Immediately the audience was captivated by their beautiful harmony. People were amazed by the way their voices blended together, and the end of each song brought well deserved applause and appreciation. The concert was carefully paced with a wide range of musical styles that kept everyone engaged.

As the performance progressed, Louise kept a close watch on Russell’s reaction. In the beginning he sat without any outward sign of emotion. He did not clap after the first few songs, but slowly she saw him relax and begin to slightly move his head with the rhythm. By the time the concert reached the halfway point his attention was focused. He was certainly enjoying the beautiful music, but it appeared that it was the individual singers who truly moved him. He watched them intensely and seemed to be touched by their vocal ability, their stage presence and their genuine enthusiasm.

The concert continued and everyone in attendance enjoyed themselves immensely. When the choir reached their final song, the choir director stepped forward and looking out at the large audience said, “Redemption would like to thank you for the invitation to perform here tonight. We appreciate all of you coming, and we hope you have enjoyed our music. For our final number we would like to feature the amazing talent of our soloist.”

As the man slowly moved to the front of the choir, the weakness in his right leg produced a limp that was clearly visible. In order to control the tremor in his hands, he tightly gripped the walker he used for balance. Russell watched closely as the soloist reached his spot and attempted to stand up as straight as possible, which was difficult due to the multiple spinal surgeries he had endured over the years. But as he looked out at the audience, the man flashed a wide smile of warmth and sincerity that made people forget about his challenges.

After a moment of silence the choir director lifted her hands and twenty-nine voices soared. The last song had been chosen for its drama and beauty, and the choir delivered with energy and passion. At the conclusion of the first verse their voices slowly softened to a whisper and then the man began his solo. Louise glanced over at Russell and watched as he closed his eyes and let the richness of the sound wash over him. The combination of the singer’s voice and the powerful lyrics transported him to a place he had not been to in years. It was a place where there was no pain, where he felt no guilt and where he was at peace. For a brief time his mind was clear, and he was alive in the moment, without the crushing burden of the past weighing him down. For at least a few minutes he was free from this world.

As Russell listened to the lyrics, he thought the man had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. It seemed to touch him in a way that nothing had in recent memory. But the man’s gift was not limited to his vocal talent, there was also a contagious joy that he projected as he sang a touching message that embraced Russell. It had been years since the former Special Ed teacher had felt hopeful about anything, but as he listened to this person sing, something that had been dormant within him rose to the surface, and he felt emotions that had seemingly died ages before.

When the solo came to an end, the entire choir joined together as one in the final chorus. Their voices lifted to a crescendo, and people in the audience were visibly moved. Marjorie squeezed her husband’s hand as thirty individuals with a wide range of disabilities created a majestic sound filled with beauty and power that lifted people up. Just as Louise knew it would, their performance touched everyone who heard them – particularly Russell.

As the last note melted away, the audience showed their appreciation with cheers and lengthy applause. Many stood and others had tears streaming down their faces. Marjorie turned and looked at her husband of forty-six years. She could not remember the last time she had seen him with such an expression of happiness. The smile on his face made her feel deeply grateful that the talented choir had allowed Russell to recapture a part of himself that had disappeared long ago.

When the applause finally died down, the choir members carefully began to move around the room greeting people, shaking hands and giving hugs to those who shared some of the same challenges that they did. For many years Russell had recoiled from human contact. It made him feel incredibly uncomfortable to be touched, and it was all he could do to tolerate the necessary handling that was part of the daily living assistance in a long-term care facility. But Marjorie and Louise both watched in amazement as Russell timidly placed his hand on the shoulders of various choir members and softly congratulated them on their performance. After several minutes, Russell became more relaxed and he seemed to bond with the individuals who reminded him so much of the students he had once been so proud to teach.

Louise walked over to Marjorie. They smiled at each other, and as tears filled their eyes they hugged. “Thank you.” Marjorie whispered. Both women felt as though this might be a moment in time that could make a profound difference in the life of a man who they both fervently believed deserved to live the rest of his life free from the shadow of the past.

As the two women stood alongside Russell, the individual who sang the beautiful solo slowly navigated his walker through the crowd and made his way over to them. Louise had known him for several years, and she was always impressed by his positive attitude and good nature. He smiled at her as he had done after countless performances. “Well, Louise did I hit manage to hit all the notes?”

She laughed and said, “You were perfect! Everyone loved it.”

As he turned and faced the Lynwoods he asked her, “Are you going to introduce me to your friends?”

“It would be my pleasure. This is Russell and Marjorie Lynwood, and as you know, this is our long time soloist Sean Larson.”

It only took a moment for both men to recognize the other’s name. Marjorie also reacted by gasping and covering her mouth in shock.

Louise was confused. She watched as Russell’s shoulders slumped and his head dropped down. His entire physical being seemed to suddenly be racked with pain. She thought she heard him mumble, “No, no, no.” Marjorie reached out and put her arm around him. Feeling completely lost, Louise glanced at Sean. His expression showed both concern and great compassion. When she turned back to Russell a look of agony swept over his face as he started repeating over and over again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. So, so sorry.”

Louise looked at everyone, “I don’t understand. What is going on?”

Marjorie shook her head in disbelief. No one could have anticipated something like this. She took a deep breath and tried to answer, “Sean was the little boy that Russell…” but her voice trailed off as it became choked with emotion.

Suddenly the reality of what was happening became clear. Louise had simply never made the connection. She had known for years that Sean sustained his traumatic brain injury as a child when he was struck by a car, but it never occurred to her that one of her patients was the driver. She focused again on Russell who was now visibly trembling, and she knew she could not begin to comprehend what he was feeling.

But the one person who did understand the emotion of the moment was Sean himself. Now thirty-seven years old, he’d had a lifetime of experience dealing with challenges, fears and disappointments. He had endured great physical pain and psychological trauma. He knew firsthand the extreme highs and lows that can happen in life, but most importantly he had found a way to come to terms with the things that could not be changed.

Sean looked at the man who had altered his life so long ago, and he knew he had to take this opportunity to try to ease his suffering.

“Mr. Lynwood I’ve wanted to meet you for many years so I could tell you face to face that my accident was not your fault and that my family did not blame you in any way.” The sincerity of his voice made Russell slowly look up. “I want you to know that I feel bad, but not for myself. I feel bad for you, because of everything you’ve been through. Maybe if we had met a long time ago you would have perhaps found a way to forgive yourself, and you could’ve been spared much of the pain you have suffered.”

But his words were lost on Russell who was consumed by his internal pain and could only plead, “I beg you to please forgive me.”

Sean shook his head. “There is nothing to forgive, because you did nothing wrong. My parents told me countless times that you were not speeding and that you were driving safely. I was a child, and I made the mistake, not you. But I forgave myself so that I could live my life without regret or remorse.”

Sean spoke in a straight forward way that was disarming. “Certainly the accident changed my life, but it didn’t ruin it. It actually played a very important role in making me the person I am today, and I like that person. My disability made me more aware of how fragile life can be. It gave me a sensitivity to the suffering of others, and I learned to accept people without judging them. My life has not been easy, but it seems to me that it has been easier than yours.” Sean continued, “The accident only damaged my brain, but it affected your thoughts. I believe you have suffered far more than I have.”

Louise studied Sean’s face and knew that he was being completely honest. “If I had not chased after that ball in the street, you would’ve had a completely different life, just like me. We would not be standing here today, bound together because of a single moment in time. But the difference is, I have been able to let go of the past. I couldn’t change it, so I decided it was best to move forward and live in a way that had meaning for me.”

The words seemed to have a calming effect on Russell, but he still doubted them. He attempted to return Sean’s honesty. “But look what I did to your life – to both of our lives – and to those who love us. Look at all of the unhappiness I caused you.”

Sean’s face lit up with his contagious smile. “Mr. Lynwood, do I not seem happy to you?”

Russell wanted to believe that the man in front of him felt content and fulfilled, but it seemed impossible to erase years of guilt and shame. “It means so much to see what you’ve done with your remarkable life, but I still can’t help feeling responsible for putting you in such an incredibly difficult situation.” As Marjorie watched her husband she knew how difficult this conversation was for him.

Sean’s face grew serious, “It is important to me that you understand just how much I love my life. I enjoy being part of this choir and making people feel good. In many ways I believe I am blessed. I haven’t let my disability hold me back. I am living exactly the way I want.” Then he looked with great tenderness at Russell and gently said, “I just want you to be as happy as I am.”

As tears filled Russell’s eyes he whispered, “I want that too.”

Marjorie and Louise held their breath as the man who had lost decades of his life slowly extended his right hand. Sean shook it, but then without hesitating he let go of the walker and stepped up to Russell. The two men, both changed forever in very different ways, embraced in a long heartfelt hug that conveyed compassion, forgiveness and acceptance.

Although everyone involved knew this chance meeting could not alter an event that had occurred more than thirty years before, they now at least had hope that the healing process had finally begun for the former Special Ed teacher.

Russell Lynwood had come face to face with the past and discovered his own personal form of redemption.

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